As The Pandemic Rages On, Movie Theaters Are Altering The Moviegoing Experience. But Are Dallasites Ready To Get Back In Front Of The Silver Screen?
Crowds, high prices, lack of free time and overall unappealing releases are among the reasons Dallasites skipped going to the movies. And, in the age of streaming services, many would rather stay at home with hundreds of movie choices for less than $10 a month.
On March 16, the option of going to the movies on the weekend, standing in line to buy tickets and spending $50 at the concession stand alone after spending $30 on two tickets was no longer a reality.
The city of Dallas and Dallas County ordered all bars, lounges, taverns, gym, and theaters to close, one week after its first reported case of COVID19 in Frisco. Meanwhile, in Fort Worth a mandatory reduction in crowd capacity of local businesses was enacted. Local restaurants were forced to provide curbside pickup if they wanted to continue operating during the worldwide pandemic. Dallas, the ninth largest city in the U.S., has seen very slight dips of cases reported in recent weeks. As of publish, Dallas County has seen 74,100 positive cases and 948 deaths since March.
The Texas Theatre — a historical landmark in Oak Cliff known for showing independent films and hosting live shows and podcasts — transitioned into a curbside pick-up destination and streaming service of its own.
“The curbside plan was always meant to be a temporary solution to keep some revenue coming in and to give our staff some hours,” said Barak Epstein, President of Aviation Cinems Inc., which operates the Texas Theatre.
Posters, snacks, beer & wine and merch were all being sold out of the front door under topical and encouraging messages of hope on the marquee. On July 11, the theater’s service ceased and efforts were placed elsewhere: a drive-in experience.
Behind the Texas Theatre, you will find a small parking lot allowing 35 cars to catch a film or two on a gray inflatable screen dubbed the “Sunset Drive In.”
“Earlier in the summer, We had been eyeing a July reopening like many other venues and theaters were,” Epstein says. “However, once the case counts began to rise again, we realized that was not going to work and we quickly decided to start doing outdoor screenings in the back parking lot right after July Fourth. We called it the “Sunset Drive-In” because the lot faces Sunset Avenue, and Oak Cliff always has the best Sunsets.”
Despite a pass to resume business at 25% occupancy on May 1 during phase one of the reopening plans, several theaters chose to remain closed to insure the safety of their employees and customers.
“Drive-in movies have always been popular in the summer in Texas but now it’s really one of the only safe night outs you can do,” Epstein says. “We’re seeing a ton of date night-type [Instagram] posts around our screenings.”
Cinephiles have since had to find their fix elsewhere in the DFW area. In a pandemic world, embracing traditions like institutions such as Ennis’ Galaxy Drive-In and Coyote Drive-In in Fort Worth, are a surprising fix to the moviegoing void. As a result, both drive-in theaters made themselves more accessible by implementing an “Open 7 Days A Week” business model instead of previously being billed as weekend-only destinations.
Unfortunately, some North Texas residents like Ashley Ayer of the Dallas-based podcast “Black Girl Film Club”, have to deal with the difficulty of traveling much farther now.
“In February, I put off seeing a couple of movies with friends and by March all of those movies had been postponed or released on VOD,” Ayer says. “I immediately regretted not going to the theater when I had the chance. The nearest drive-in theaters are both about an hour away.”
For many, the convenience of movies at home does not outweigh the experience of an epic tale told on a 30-foot screen.
“Some movies are just made for watching on a big screen,” Ayer says. “Some directors shoot their movies with specific cameras designed for larger screens, and you get a sense that you’re watching their work as they envisioned [it]. I live with family and I’m easily distracted, so if a movie doesn’t grab my attention immediately, I don’t feel as connected as I normally would.”
Late last month, many theaters slowly opened up by implementing regular cleanings throughout the day with disinfectant sprayings and wipe downs of high traffic areas, instead of just the casual sweeping of popcorn.
Back in June, AMC, Regal and Cinemark, the three biggest movie theater chains in the U.S., released mask policies that left decision making to respective local governments instead of making it a mandatory practice across all of their properties. Outrage erupted as thousands voiced their opinions on the hands-off approach to the safety practice that has somehow become a political issue.
“Masks are not a political issue, they are a public safety measure that experts from the CDC and WHO recommend,” said Bill DiGaetano, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse North Texas.
After several months of idleness, the home of the heavily-enforced no-talking policy reopened on August 20.
“For five months, we have been preparing for this moment and while our enhanced safety guidelines and procedures were in place months ago, we wanted to wait, watch and learn from other theater and restaurant openings” DiGaetano says. “Our staff and guest safety is our number one priority and being prepared to meet new demands of personal safety took time.”
DiGaetano says he understands that some people don’t want to deal with the paranoia of trusting that everyone in the theater is not actively spreading a disease while trying to have a moment outside of the house and work.
“I think we are all getting cabin fever and need to get out of the house once in a while,” he says. “Our buffer seats, mask requirements, online ordering and cleaning procedures make the theater experience very safe.”
Alamo is also offering $150 theater rentals for private viewings. The trend of theater rentals has been advertised more in the last few months as a way to meet-up with friends and family while not risking concentration from strangers.
As for the future of moviegoing experiences in North Texas, as is the case for many things, these alternative showings seem to be the new normal.
The Dallas International Film Festival had to cancel its annual showcase and instead chose to do a monthly screening of classic films at Four Corners Brewing. Klyde Warren Park’s ‘Movies In The Park’ series — seemingly the only outdoor movie allowing people to be outside of their cars — is already scheduled to run through December on select Saturday evenings for free.
“It would be interesting to see theaters embrace outdoor seating, if their location permits,” Ayer says. “I do think it will be a long time before indoor theaters will be a completely safe option for everyone.”
With so many adaptive options for where and how to watch movies in the DFW area now, it’s really a matter of what movie lovers feel most comfortable with.