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Filmgoers 

For Alisa Mixon, a computer analyst who lives in Florissant, MO, Jordan Peele’s “Nope” was the movie that made her finally say “Yes, I’m going back to the theater.”

After more than two years of COVID-related lockdowns, health restrictions and permanent closures, Mixon is among the millions who have returned to movie theaters this summer. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “major theater chains are finally starting to see a box office recovery” due to the summer blockbuster season with releases that include Nope, Beast, League of Super-Pets, Minions: The Rise of Gru and Bullet Train.

Mixon, a self-described “supporter of Black films,” said seeing “Nope” was a necessary precursor before November’s release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Mixon said her cautionary trek to 24:1 Cinema on Page Avenue last month turned out to be an experience she didn’t know she missed.

“To be honest, I enjoyed them (movies) at home. That whole experience was pretty good because the concession stand was cheap,” Mixon said with a laugh. “But I did kind of miss the camaraderie of looking at films with an audience, everybody reacting to things, especially horror films.”

Although the pandemic made her hesitant, Mixon and a group of girlfriends decided to make “a date” out of their first theater experience. They met at a black-owned restaurant, Goss'Up Pasta, across the street from the cinema before attending an early Sunday afternoon showing of Peele’s movie. The experience was quite delightful.

“My girlfriends and I were able to have the after-movie conversation that I had missed,” Mixon explained. “Being able to talk about the movie we had just experienced at the same time; I missed the different group interpretations. It was so satisfying that we promised to do it again. It may become our Sunday theme.”

Mixon’s experience is what executives like Rolando Rodriguez, Chairman, President & CEO of Marcus Theaters, attribute to the rebound of local movie theaters.

“Yes, that’s what people want, the typical evening out and that’s what we offer at Marcus Theaters,” said Rodriguez whose company owns eight multiplexes in the area, including the Wehrenberg Theaters chain purchased in 2016.

Rodriguez said Marcus Theaters have combined all the elements Mixon spoke of for the ultimate movie-going experience.

“Many of our customers come out before the movie and enjoy cocktails and dinner. They go to our lounges afterwards that typically have a 20-foot screen and experience sporting events while talking about the movie they just watched. Instead of the typical 21/2-hours, it’s now become a three-to-four-hour experience.”

Rodriguez, who was born in Cuba, came to the United States as a child with his family. They first settled in California then migrated to Kansas City because his parents had relatives. Rodriguez said he has been a lover of movie theaters since the age of 15 when he was hired as a ticket-taker at the Embassy Theaters in Kansas.

The pandemic was a challenging time for movie theaters, like any other consumer-related business, Rodriguez said. But, the good news, he insisted is that movie theaters are rebounding.

“This summer was very exciting to see a lot more films getting released (through theaters). And the second thing is that consumer confidence is starting to rebuild. Whether it’s restaurants or retail, we’re all going through that process of rebuilding consumer confidence and them being comfortable around a lot of people.”

Ruth Harker, vice president and head of engineering at Swan Packaging hasn’t gotten to the comfort level Rodriguez mentioned. Harker, a Webster Groves resident said she has no plans to return to the movie theaters.

“Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but there’s so much hate in the world,” Harker said while detailing why her family stopped going to the movies. “There are shootings in theaters. Another reason we didn’t go back is because people weren’t wearing masks. I had tuberculosis as a kid and if I can avoid being exposed, I’m going to do it.”

Before the pandemic hit, St. Louis County resident and education consultant, Mark Anthony Jones was an avid movie-goer, attending the theater twice a week. The last movie he saw was Tyler Perry’s “A Madea Family Funeral” in 2019. Going to the theatre became almost impossible due to theater closings or limiting seating due to COVID limitations.  

“They had all these restrictions; ‘you can’t do this, or you can’t do that.’ It sucked all the fun out of the experience. It wasn’t worth going…no fun in it.” Jones confessed.

Jones will see the movie, Bad Boys 4, which actor Martin Lawrence said is still in development despite the controversy surrounding his co-star Will Smith. Until then, Jones said he’s’ completely satisfied with what streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime offers from the comfort of his home.     

Nathan Lee, a St. Louis native who has relocated to Fort Worth TX, shares Jones’ satisfaction with streaming services.

“I realized that I don’t have to see something at the movies,” Lee said. “I have Netflix, Hulu, Prime, Paramount and Disney. If movies are not on Redbox, I’ll just wait ‘til they come out on cable. You know they have 65-inch TVs now so I can have the big-screen experience while I’m at home in my underwear.”

Lee spoke to a painful post-COVID reality for theater-owners. According to the Motion Picture Association’s (MPA) annual “theme report,” streaming has had a definite impact on the movie theater industry. According to the report, in 2021, streaming services increased to 353.2 million in the United States, up 14% from 2020.

Rodriguez relegated the rise in streaming services to the two-year-plus pandemic.

“There really wasn’t an option. Most of the people were staying home; you had no choice,” Rodriguez argued. “Streaming has always existed. Netflix has been around a long time. The competition is not really with us; it’s with other streaming services.

Rodriguez said there’s actually a symbiotic relationship between new films released through movie theaters and those released through streaming.

“If a movie does well in theaters, then it will do well in streaming. If it doesn’t do well in theaters, it usually won’t do well in streaming.”

As far as he’s concerned, streaming is better suited for original series like “Game of Thrones, Squid Games or Ozarks.”

“When you think about streaming, it’s almost like binge-watching,” Rodriguez argued, adding: “You’re watching a series, episode after episode. It’s like watching an elongated film. That’s what I think is happening.”

Clarissa Rile Hayward, a professor of political science at Washington University and the author of How Americans Make Race: Stories, Institutions, Spaces,” is on the fence. Before the pandemic she frequented small movie houses like the HiPointe Theatre or the Moolah Theatre which closed during the pandemic. She’s fully vaccinated and boosted but still has her concerns.

“It’s about not doing something super risky health-wise. The disease keeps evolving and mutating and we can’t keep up with it,” Hayward said while expressing her doubts about ventilation systems in theaters.

Rodriguez said fears of ventilation systems in theaters should be “put in the past.”

“When you go watch a movie, you have 40-foot-high ceilings, you have special filtration happening through the places. In many entertainment (venues) people sat together, they talked, they ate…in theaters you didn’t have that. Unfortunately, we were unjustly punished when we had a pretty good environment to be around people.”

Hayward also wants to see Peele’s latest movie” in the theater. She said she’s in the process of making a calculated decision.    

“I’ve flown, I’ve eaten in restaurants, I teach, I’ve been in classrooms. So, in general if it’s an activity that’s not replaceable, I’m more likely to do it. With movies, if you just wait a little bit, you can just catch it at home.”

Still, like Mixon, Hayward said Peele’s movie may draw her back to the theater.

“His films are a little different. They’re like an event. You kind of want to see it with people in the theater with everybody reacting.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow. 

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