After over seven long, grueling months of uncertainty and trying to keep operations afloat amid COVID-19 restrictions, many movie theaters across Washington will be opening back up Friday at limited capacity, including the two venues on Bainbridge Island.
The Kingston Firehouse Theater also will open, but the Regal Cinemas in Poulsbo are closed.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee announced looser restrictions for theaters to open Oct. 16 at the appropriate capacity depending on which phase of Inslee’s Safe Start plan their county is in. Bainbridge Cinemas and the Historic Lynwood Theatre will open at 25 percent capacity given that Kitsap County is in Phase 2.
“Things are going to be different,” said Far Away Entertainment managing partner Jeff Brein, who operates the two Bainbridge theaters. “There’s going to be plenty of room in the auditorium for folks to move around.
“Movie-goers are kind of the original social-distancers as it is; nobody wants to sit on top of anybody else at a movie theater. We’re not going to be blocking off seats or supervising seating. We’re going to let people kind of do this on their own. If there are any issues or problems, we’ll be available to help.”
The real-game changer that allowed these theaters to open back up was installation of top-of-the-line MERV 13 heating and air conditioning filters, which many theaters are using to open back up during the pandemic, Brein said.
“We have opened the fresh air dampers on all of our units all the way so there is an abundance of fresh air coming into the auditorium,” he said. “Our hallway is like a wind tunnel; the doors of the theater are blown open. There’s so much air circulating in there – it’s quite a difference from what it used to be.”
Other COVID-19 protocols include plexiglass at concession stands, daily temperature checks for employees, mandatory face masks except when consuming food or beverages, social distancing, encouraging customers to purchase tickets online, wiping down point of sale areas, propping open all doors, and spraying down the auditoriums with disinfectant between showings.
“We’re going to limit our movies to two shows a day versus the four that we normally have,” Brein said. “That will be late-afternoon and early evening. As our film product improves and as people feel more confident and comfortable going back in and as the holidays approach, we’re hopeful that the governor will increase our capacity. For now, we’re just going to see how it goes.
“We really need to build back the confidence of people as you would a restaurant or a store,” Brein continued. “There has never been a case of coronavirus attributed to a movie theater. We think we have a fairly safe environment. We’re going to do everything we can to keep it that way.”
Brein said he knows theaters will show new movies, just not the typical blockbusters around Thanksgiving and Christmas due to the delay of movie studio production for many anticipated films.
“We’re going to have an amazing 2021 if you look at all that’s stacked up out there,” he said.
Road to recovery
Simply getting to this point was a difficult task. After initially closing due to the pandemic, FAE started using its website and social media to promote virtual cinema, which involves selecting films that people could pay for on the internet. Brein said they partnered with various studios to receive some of that revenue.
“It’s not a lot. It hasn’t been terribly meaningful for us but it does continue to remind people that we’re here,” he said.
Brein also said they were able to secure some Small Business Administration and Paycheck Protection Program grants to keep a “skeleton staff” of employees and provide some “breathing room” to pay critical expenses.
“We did a free popcorn event at Bainbridge Cinemas a couple of weekends ago,” he said. “We really had a good turnout, and we raised some money. We are not out of the woods; there are some challenges ahead for us, but just being able to get the doors open again is a major step for us. We’re going to keep our fingers crossed and hope for good things for the holidays.”
There were concerns about retaining staff that was furloughed, but Brein said most of them are coming back to work.
“These theaters are the only theaters on the island,” he said. “We really feel that we’re part of the fabric of this community. If we need help at some point in time, we’re not going to be embarrassed to ask for it. We’ve got an obligation to serve our community, and we take it very seriously.”
The Historic Lynwood Theatre, which operated without interruption since 1936 before the pandemic, will soon be celebrating its 85th birthday, Brein said.
Even before COVID-19 there was talk about the movie industry suffering at the hands of streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and buying or renting movies from home. But Brein insists his theaters will be around for the long haul due to community support and by providing a true authentic experience that can’t be matched from your couch at home.
“It’s one thing to watch ‘Star Wars’ on your phone versus watching it on a giant screen with a group of like-minded people with great digital sound,” he said. “There have been people for years who talk about the demise of movie theaters. No one anywhere can duplicate the experience of a movie theater. For that reason, we don’t worry about some of these competitive platforms.”
Regarding the recent closure of Regal Cinemas nationwide, including Poulsbo, Brein said folks in North Kitsap will now gravitate to his theaters or the AMC in Silverdale.
“We in the industry don’t have a clear handle on why they have done this,” he said of Regal. “Some people surmise that it’s to leverage the movie studios into saying, ‘Uh, oh, we better get some good product out there. Look at all these places that are slowing down. We’re not going to be able to show our movies.’”
Brein added that Regal locations have 12 to 24 screens while Bainbridge Cinemas has five and Historic Lynwood Theatre one.
Meanwhile, the Kingston Firehouse Theater will also be opening Friday, owner Craig Smith said.
He added the appropriate air filtration needed to safely open the theater to the public will be installed Thursday.
The first weekend of showings will consist of a replay of Raiders of the Lost Ark three times a day, except for Sunda,y when there will be two showings.
The following films will be shown Friday at Bainbridge Cinemas:Tenet, 3 and 6 p.m.
Broken Hearts Gallery, 3:15 and 6:15 p.m.
New Mutants, 3:30 and 6:30 p.m.
War with Grandpa, 3:45 and 6:45 p.m.
Honest Thief, 4 and 7 p.m.
At the Historic Lynwood Theatre, showings of The Personal History of David Copperfield will be shown at 4 and 7 p.m.
For details go to farawayentertainment.com.