SALT LAKE CITY — For today’s special pandemic edition of how-well-do-you-know-your-fellow-Utahns, here’s your question:
Name the two most popular movies chosen by families and other groups renting out auditoriums at Megaplex Theatres.
Hint: One involves dinosaurs, the other a bunch of kids on a treasure hunt.
And neither one is “The Godfather,” “Shawshank Redemption,” “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” or “Gone With the Wind” — the usual chart toppers on lists that rank the best films of all time.
- “Jurassic Park.”
- “The Goonies.”
“Yes, I’m a little surprised that those are the top two,” admitted Blake Andersen, president of Megaplex Theatres. “I thought possibly it would have been the ‘Harry Potters,’ or ‘Star Wars,’ or something like that. And they’ve done well, but not to the extent of those first two.”
But then, it’s not the first time movie buffs have surprised Andersen during these past two-plus months since Hollywood stopped releasing new features and theaters closed their doors.
“I’ve always known people love their movies,” said Andersen. “It took a pandemic to show just how much.”
In Utah, the boom was lowered on March 17, when the coronavirus lockdown shuttered movie theaters along with all other businesses not considered essential.
Suddenly with 182 screens in 16 different theater complexes as dark as Darth Vader’s mask, Andersen and his staff put their heads together to see if there might be any segment of their once thriving operation they could salvage.
“We knew we couldn’t show movies, but we thought people would still want their movie popcorn, their drinks and candy,” said Andersen. “So we quickly developed a link on our app so we were able to offer at least some form of the cinema experience.”
Then everyone sat back and wondered if selling movie popcorn without the movie (and at the usual inflated prices) was a stupid idea.
Until the next day, when 50 cars were lined up waiting for the curbside concession pickup to begin.
“You know, I felt it would do well,” said Andersen. “But to that extent? Not at all. The turnout was astounding, better than anyone expected. People want their movie theater popcorn. It just tastes better in that bucket.”
On May 14, when restrictions were relaxed and theaters could begin reopening on a limited scale, Anderson and his team came up with their next plan: Since Hollywood wasn’t releasing any new films and seating was limited, they decided to make their auditoriums available for rent to small private groups.
For $375 a group of 20 could take over the theater, select the already-released movie of their choice, along with popcorn and drinks.
Again, no one knew if this would work. Was it expecting too much to have people pay to rewatch their favorite film?
Within days, 250 auditoriums were booked at the four Megaplex locations initially designated for the special buyouts. Within a few more days, two additional Megaplex locations were added to meet the demand.
“What we’re seeing is real evidence that the cinema experience is something Americans treasure,” said Andersen, whose 37-year career in the movie business began in 1982 when he started “selling tickets and sweeping popcorn” at the Wilshire Theatre in Ogden as a 17-year-old. “Cinemas have always been a place of community escape for us, a place where we can enter into another reality for a couple of hours, clap together, cry together, laugh together.”
He’s been intrigued by the classic movies people have selected when reserving their Megaplex auditorium. Some pay extra for double- and even triple-features, playing James Bond movies back to back, or the “Bourne Trilogy.” One movie that has been rented a lot is “Mean Girls.” “Don’t quite know why,” he said.
His personal favorite for his own private screening: “The Princess Bride.”
Given time to think about it, he has a theory why “Jurassic Park” and “The Goonies” have been the runaway favorites.
“They are movies where adversity strikes and you have to figure it out,” he said. “There’s heroism involved, and the idea that we can beat any enemy, that we all prevail in the end. Very much like what we’re going through as a society right now.”