Davis Varsity Theatre was closed March 2020 to May 2021 and saw audiences return to independent movies like “The French Dispatch.” (Photos by Gavin Hudson)

Entertaining Hope

Capital Region movie theaters struggled through the pandemic — but a few are thriving

Back Web Only Jan 18, 2022 By Gavin Hudson

This story was written by a student journalist as part of our Media Makers Project. To learn more, click here.

The ill effects of the pandemic hit the entertainment industry hard. Movie theaters and other venues for in-person entertainment lost their customer base entirely and were left with nothing but loose estimates as to when they could reopen. 

On Jul. 13, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the immediate closure of movie theaters following the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the state. There was no time frame given as to when the theaters were allowed to reopen. 

Jackson Cinemas in Amador County closed permanently May 21, 2021.

One casualty was Regal Jackson Cinema in Amador County (formerly Jackson Cinemas). On March 20, 2020, the theater (part of the nationwide Regal chain, a division of the multinational company Cineworld) closed its doors in response to the statewide mandate. It reopened that summer until Oct. 8, 2020, when it was forced to close once again due to a rise in cases in Amador county. On May 21, 2021, the theater announced that it would permanently close its doors.

But other theaters have been more fortunate. We spoke to two Capital Region theaters with long histories that managed to ride out the pandemic. 

Big movies bring big business for a small theater

The Woodland State Theatre and Multiplex has been a staple of Woodland’s Main Street since it was built in 1936. After a remodel in 2017, the theater looked ahead to extending its legacy further as the city of Woodland began to expand. 

Employees were left without their jobs when the theater closed in March 2020. When the theater announced it would reopen about a year later, hope began to grow in the community that it would pull through. 

The State Theatre has been thriving since it reopened last March. “Right now, with really big movies coming out, it is feeling like it used to,” says Abel Preciado, assistant manager of the theater.

“Right now, with really big movies coming out, it is feeling like it used to.”

Abel Preciado, assistant manager, Woodland State Theatre and Multiplex

The Woodland State Theatre and Multiplex closed temporarily in March 2020, but reopened about a year later.

 Preciado went on to say that the theater was appropriately staffed. “We hired some seasonal people recently and it has definitely helped for the holiday rush and kids getting out of school,” he says.

With plenty of big budget films being released during the pandemic, the State Theatre had enough movies with a big draw to gauge its standing in the public. As for what film marked a true audience return, Preciado says, “In my opinion, it would be ‘Black Widow.’ It brought in a lot of people. Even F9 (the ninth installment in the ‘Fast & Furious’ franchise) … opening week we almost sold out the giant screen.”

Releases like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” proved that people were more than happy to be back. One moviegoer exclaimed “Thank God this is back!” when leaving the theater the night of the new “Spider-Man” release — dressed in the title character’s signature red-and-blue costume. 

An independent theater stays strong 

Davis Varsity Theatre’s primary focus is geared toward independent films that most theater chains don’t show. The theater, which opened in 1950, prides itself on hosting a cinematic experience — a concept becoming rarer with the rise in popularity of streaming services. Business owner Sinisa Novakovic explained that the Varsity’s audience is “a totally different ballgame” compared to other theaters.

Davis Varsity Theatre was closed March 2020 to May 2021 and saw audiences return to independent movies like “The French Dispatch.”

One big upside the Varsity has is that the property is city-owned. Over a decade ago, Novakovic took over the Varsity from the city of Davis and managed to get it back into the black. When the pandemic hit, the city did not continue asking for rent payments due to the theater’s closure. That, combined with federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, allowed the Varsity to financially survive the harshest part of the pandemic. 

The Varsity was shut down between Mar. 15, 2020 and May 1, 2021, but “Believe it or not, my entire crew is still with me,” says Novakovic, adding that staffing for the theater hasn’t been a problem. 

The theater saw success upon reopening, with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” bringing in roughly 3,500 customers, and has maintained a steady consumer base since. Still, the fear for the theater’s future remains present. “You absolutely have no clue at the end,” says Novakovic. He adds that the new COVID-19 variants have “dampened the business.” 

The Varsity is looking ahead at the next era of indie films and their newfound relevance. Studios like A24 have proven that an audience exists for indie films, as well as for theaters like the Varsity that offer a classic moviegoing experience. Though the omicron variant is again depressing ticket sales, the show must go on for independent movie theaters.

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Comments

Cyndie Miller (not verified)January 27, 2022 - 8:30am

Article is very informative. I've been wondering about Movie theatre's since the pandemic. So happy to hear of those that are coming back and doing well.

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