As a lifelong habitué of Santa Barbara’s Metropolitan Theaters system, I’ve been making regular visits as film critic — and film addict — for decades. During the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, I have sometimes spent 10 hours in one or another of their screening rooms in a single day. Despite this deep familiarity, my most recent visit, which involved scoping out the Camino Real Cinemas days before they reopened to the public, felt strange, like braving a forbidden zone.
Metropolitan’s Vice President of Operations Kim Tucker and veteran theater manager Tammy Steuart ushered me through a maze of sanitation stations into theaters retooled for 25 percent capacity, and past sneeze guards at the refreshment stand, among other signs of the times, as we stood on the brink of the long-shuttered theaters going public again.
Thanks to Santa Barbara County’s official approval of theater reopening on Tuesday, September 28, which was allowed because the area’s COVID status dropped from purple to red, two multiplexes in Metropolitan’s seven-venue local holdings reopen on Friday, October 2. A total of 11 screens will come to life at Goleta’s Camino Real Cinemas and Santa Barbara’s Fiesta 5, with more possibly opening soon.
For six months, the closest would-be theater customers have come to “going to the movies” has been through the company’s online “Virtual Cinema” offerings and weekend servings of food and beverages — a concessions concession for patrons hungry for at least a semblance of theater experience. Metropolitan theaters have been shuttered since mid-March, and the company had to furlough or lay off nearly 450 employees.
David Corwin, president of the multi-generation Corwin-run Metropolitan chain, explained that “we’ve been running a family business for 97 years, and obviously we’ve never experienced something like this. One of the amazing things about movie theaters is that whatever else is going on in the world — the economy, war — theaters are open, 365 days a year. To have this situation is extraordinary.”
Corwin points out that a recent poll revealed that “only 35 to 40 percent of people knew if their movie theaters were open. It’s almost like we’re starting over again — out of sight, out of mind. The product is the number-one important thing. No matter how safe it is, if there aren’t movies people want to see, they’re not going to come. Without New York and a lot of California being open, the studios have been reluctant to release significant films, so that’s made it hard. But we’ve got to start somewhere.”
He believes that “a lot of people are craving some social interaction. You need to experience something other than sitting on your couch. We want to provide that.” A movie theater, he says, is “a social gathering place for the community. At the same time, as far as COVID is concerned, our environment is a lot safer than others people are putting themselves in, from the grocery store to a restaurant or a gym. By nature, it’s a safe environment, but we’ve been grouped into the social gathering distinction, one of the last to get greenlighted, as far as reopening.”
The theaters are limited to a 25% percent capacity rule, with a contactless ticketing system via a new Metropolitan app and a reserved seating system which automatically distances viewers. Every other row is closed, and a misting system is installed in the theaters, alongside strict cleaning protocols throughout. Among the new policies is a “Private Screening” option, available to parties of up to 20 people for $125 and up.
Metropolitan has reopened theaters in other states — Colorado, Utah, and Idaho — where restrictions have been more lenient, and the company adheres to a “cinema safe” program designed by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO).
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Corwin. “We could open and be doing great, but then the county sees cases rise, tells us to close again. That’s why we want to get open while we can, while there’s new product.” That product list of new movies includes Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, The Broken Hearts Gallery, and indie films The Last Shift, The Secrets We Keep, and Infidel.
From inside the theater, Steuart noted, “We’re looking forward to it, getting people back in the seats and the movies going again — and seeing them instead of talking about it.”
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