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Colorado theaters reopen after a year of COVID shutdowns, but will crowds return?

Entertainment industry hoping moviegoers come back
AMC Theatre Opening
Posted at 3:49 PM, Apr 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-26 08:46:02-04

DENVER — Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve been to the theater, but the movies are slowly coming back. Now, those in the entertainment industry are wondering... Will you come back?

Like many of you, we hadn’t been to the movies in months. Then, last week, we walked into the new AMC 9+CO theater just off Colorado Boulevard for the first time. The theater sits on the second story of a huge new building at the corner of 8th Avenue and Albion Street, so moviegoers are instantly treated to a ride up an escalator into a grand lobby with hulking windows.

And what better way for movie buffs to dust-off their old movie-going habits than by catching an iconic giant ape and a classic Japanese sea monster battle it out on the big screen?

“Welcome to 'Godzilla vs. Kong,'” said a young AMC greeter.

“I love going to the movie theaters to be honest,” said a moviegoer.

After months of on-again off-again openings and closings, theaters appear to be making a comeback. But has the pandemic been a showstopper?

“I didn’t like going to the movies anyway, so I don’t think I’ll go back,” said one young woman.

Add that sentiment to a boom in streaming services and many are convinced our movie-watching habits have changed for good.

Let’s roll film and take this 360. We’ll talk to movie-goers, explore the growth of streaming, dive into the economics of theaters closing while others are opening and we’ll start with the psychology of people’s connection to the theater and whether we do or don’t want to return.

“It’s been a year of loss,” said Apryl Alexander, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver. “We’ve lost individuals, we’ve lost milestones, celebrations and our movies.”

Alexander says the verdict is out on how the majority is feeling about returning to the theater.

“We have a lot of great blockbusters that were delayed last year that are coming out this summer – and even I’m questioning whether or not we go back,” she said. “[Entertainment] is part of our self-care. It’s the way we relax. It’s the way we tune out of the world.”

That's why the future of the theater might be brighter than it appears.

“We as consumers crave the ability to get out of our homes and get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Jon Weisiger with CBRE. Weisiger is the current retail Broker of the Year for the Denver Metro Commercial Association of Realtors.

Weisiger says looking at current projections, theaters should see 80% of their normal volume come back by the end of this year.

“When you consider the release of new blockbuster films from Hollywood, once those start to kick-in, that will really be the catalyst to get some of these theaters off the ground,” Weisiger said.

He also says despite a tough year, theaters are still a great anchor for retail space. In particular, theaters with new amenities that offer an experience like the AMC 9+CO theater which features power recliners, heated and reserved seating, “enhanced menu options” and adult beverages as moviegoers can also book a private showing for up to 20 friends and family members.

“Bigger seats, dinner, drinks - that has really helped the theater industry,” Weisiger said.

And even some of those theaters in distress seem to be rebounding.

Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy, but the company isn’t shutting down.

They say they’re restructuring and at the Sloan’s Lake location off Colfax Avenue, for example, managers say they are now operating five days a week and adding staff daily.

“We’re seeing traffic numbers actually really improving in the retail sector,” Weisiger said. “The feeling is this year is sort of a breakout year for some of these retailers to get back.”

Of course, there’s certainly no question streaming services are stealing the show right now.

“That, to me, I think is probably the future,” said Dan Kurnos, a media analyst with the Benchmark Company.

Kurnos says streaming, both movies and TV series, are experiencing phenomenal growth as the pandemic changed entertainment behaviors.

Hollywood has taken note with more direct to streaming versus theater releases.

“I’m sure we’re going to have, just like every other medium, a loss of exclusivity in a way,” Kurnos said. “Maybe they still get some first-run stuff, especially the blockbuster hits, but anything beyond that – I expect to see a lot of direct to streaming or kind of co-production with the theater, in the theater at the same time as streaming.”

According to new research firm Conviva, our collective appetite for streaming has skyrocketed globally.

Worldwide viewing time grew by 44% in the last quarter of 2020 compared the last quarter of 2019.

“We’ve got Disney+, we’ve got Netflix and we’ve got Amazon Prime,” said a moviegoer and streaming viewer. “But, you need the sound effects from the surround sound and then the big screen. That obviously makes it better, so you feel like you’re part of the movie.”

“At the end of the day, people love their entertainment, right?” said Kurnos. “There are going to be people in the stands at sporting event, there will be people on airplanes, there will be people at restaurants and people are going back to the movies. To say this is the death of the movie theater — absolutely not.”

For many theater fans, it’s all about what’s playing: Is it a star-studded release or a big fat dud?

“I would be OK with going to the theater if it was a good lineup of movies. It’s not really about COVID,” said a moviegoer.

“As long as there are good movies coming out,” said another moviegoer.

Most agree: the spotlight is big enough for both streaming and the return of the movie theater.

“Just grabbing that hot popcorn and getting your favorite candy and just sitting down enjoying a good movie and escaping reality. People miss that,” said a moviegoer.