The scent of popcorn, the silver screen: L.A.’s movie theater fans finally get their fix

A young girl walks in tow with an adult woman.
Lulu Gooberman, 4, playfully follows the pattern of the carpet as she and her mom, Stephanie Pressman, exit El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Like many local cinephiles, Faris Jalilov has no doubt about his most deflating pandemic moment — the day that California shut down movie theaters.

On March 19 of last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order took away Faris’ greatest refuge, his oasis, his veritable “church” — the cineplex just off the 5 Freeway in the Burbank Town Center shopping mall.

Yes, the 17-year-old had to contend with myriad real-world pandemic concerns, just like other Californians. He saw half his junior year at Burbank High School reduced to sad online classes, and his senior year threatened. A couple of favorite hangouts shut down, making it harder to spend time with his friends. He lost a few hours at his job as the assistant manager of a pizza place.

Moviegoers wear masks as they watch a film at a Hollywood theater.
Moviegoers watch Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” during El Capitan Theatre’s reopening Friday. The Hollywood theater was limited to 100 guests, and alternating rows of seats were blocked to create forward and rear spacing of six feet.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

But what felt worst of all was the loss of his pilgrimages — often three times a week, or more — to the towering AMC Burbank 16, where he could watch blockbusters and cartoons and art house dramas and more. In what seemed like an instant, his IMAX-sized dreams had been reduced to a smartphone-sized reality, and that felt like too much to bear for the immigrant from Kazakhstan.

So imagine the unbounded joy that arrived last week for Faris and millions of other film fanatics when officials in Sacramento and Los Angeles ruled that movie houses could reopen.

“I just couldn’t stop smiling,” Faris rhapsodized after seeing “The Croods: A New Age” on Thursday night with his 5-year-old sister, his second visit to the 16-screen multiplex last week. “I was just so excited. So, so excited!”

After the latest easing of coronavirus health orders, Californians are celebrating the glimmers of a return to normality. For some, that means a first backyard meal with friends. For others, true relief came when they got back on the gym treadmill or got their COVID-19 vaccination. Inevitably, the pictures went up on Facebook or Instagram.

But for many in Los Angeles, home of world-renowned studios and a draw for cineastes, the reopening of movie theaters felt bigger and better than all those other milestones. Even if public health rules required that 75% of seats remained empty, L.A. film fanatics were thrilled to get the experience of sitting, with strangers, in the dark.

“Just the smell of popcorn when I walked in the lobby, it was such a profound thing,” said Britton Buchanan, 21, emerging from a screening of “Judas and the Black Messiah” on Thursday evening in Burbank.

Buchanan, a professional singer who was runner-up on the TV singing competition “The Voice” in 2018, had been driving all the way to San Bernardino County for months to get his big-screen fix at a drive-in theater. But it wasn’t the same.

“It was such an emotional thing to be back in a real movie theater,” Buchanan said. “I feel like going to the movies is such a part of our shared consciousness. It’s such a communal thing. Finally getting back was like going home.”


The theater reopening felt particularly sweet to parents, after months of trying to keep children happy and healthy under lockdown.

Lisa Ocampo drove from Santa Ana to Hollywood on Friday to take her 12-year-old daughter and sons, 10 and 6, to El Capitan Theatre to see Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

A movie theater host sits in a ticket booth at an ornate theater on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Brenden Perella, a host at the reopened El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, works the ticket booth as moviegoers arrive to watch “Raya and the Last Dragon” on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“I was worried about the emotional side of everything that has happened, how they were all doing in the pandemic,” Ocampo said. “So being here means a lot. It gets them out of the house and it’s family time…. It’s a big deal to be here.”

And her children? Kathylene, 12, rated the experience a “10.” Gabriel, 10, nodded in agreement. Bouncing on his toes, 6-year-old Christopher said, “A 100!”

Moviegoers spread out by rows at a theater.
Moviegoers spread out because of COVID-19 restrictions during El Capitan Theatre’s reopening on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Movie theater revenue had declined so badly, even before the pandemic, that industry experts fretted about the possible end days of big theatrical releases. Public health lockdowns were the last thing the industry — from big, corporate cineplexes to intimate art houses — needed, said Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the performance of films and other media.

“We are facing a big consumer-confidence test in the industry right now,” said Bock. “Are people ready, after this traumatic event, to just go back into a crowded, dark box, with people all around who we don’t know?”

For America’s theater chains, this could finally be the start of what’s expected to be a long recovery for the moviegoing experience.

March 16, 2021

But theater employees, every bit as enamored as fans who returned last week, argued that movie houses can never go the way of vaudeville.

“It’s joy. It’s pure joy. That is what has come back this week,” said James Wood, general manager of El Capitan, as he watched the Ocampos and others stroll through the plush lobby, one year after the landmark theater went dark. “Going to the movies has been my favorite thing to do since I was a child. And it’s the same for a lot of these fans. You just step into the movie house and whatever problems are going on in your life, they just melt away.”

James Wood stands in a suit and a mask with his arms crossed in front of El Capitan Theatre, with its sign lighted up
“It’s joy. It’s pure joy,” says James Wood, general manager of the legendary El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, which reopened last week with COVID-19 safety measures in place.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

El Cap, as it is lovingly called, is one of dozens of theaters that have reopened around Southern California, though many more remain dark. And the 95-year-old Hollywood venue was even more cautious with its safety protocols, allowing just 100 patrons in the 1,000-seat Spanish Baroque-style theater. After each showing, workers wiped down seats and armrests. Bottles of hand sanitizer dotted the lobby.

The scene was much the same at the Burbank cineplex, where one worker seemed to clean escalator handrails for hours. Around her, fans emerged from the theater into a sunny twilight.

Brian J. Patterson, a 46-year-old actor, toted a giant tub of popcorn with him and strained to explain why movie houses mean so much.

“Going back into a theater is just such an experience, it’s hard to even encapsulate it,” said Patterson, who wore a Wonder Woman ensemble, complete with a face covering, T-shirt, shoes and wristbands to see “Wonder Woman 1984.”

“It’s almost a rite of passage for American culture. When you go there, you are going to pay tribute to things that seem bigger than life.”

He might struggle at times to find his next role as an actor. But Patterson stokes his passion by writing essays for his website, What Would Wonder Woman Do? And he keeps scanning the horizon for his breakthrough moment. “I mean,” Patterson concluded, “going to see the movies and the whole movie industry, it’s just magical.”

Faris and the other movie early birds would agree.

Faris Jalilov with his sister, Salma, 5.
Faris Jalilov, 17, with his sister, Salma, 5, stand outside the AMC cineplex in Burbank, where they saw “Raya and the Last Dragon” last week. Faris was deflated when the pandemic forced movie theaters to shut down last year. Now that they have reopened, he says, “I was just so excited. So, so excited!”
(Jim Rainey / Los Angeles Times)

Faris had fallen in love with American movies, especially the comic book blockbusters, before he started grade school in the suburbs of Kazakhstan’s biggest city, Almaty. When the family briefly lived in a rough neighborhood, young Faris felt nervous but never in real danger. Why? Because, in his imagination, Marvel’s “Iron Man” would always come to save him.

Laughing, the teen remembers: “I thought Iron Man would fly all the way from his mansion on Malibu Beach to protect me.”

So when his family moved to Los Angeles, first staying in an Airbnb close to the Hollywood sign, it felt like a dream. His fantasy life expanded when he began to spot actors, including a few stars, stopping to watch their films at the Burbank theaters. Soon, he enrolled in acting classes at a performing arts school in Santa Clarita.

On Monday, on his first day back at the AMC Burbank 16, Faris said he spotted director Christopher Nolan, apparently in for a viewing of his sci-fi action thriller “Tenet.” He told the award-winning director how much he admired his work.

“How cool is that?” Faris said. “Imagine that, going to a theater to watch a movie that you made!”

The teenager confides that his family has been fortunate through the pandemic. He and his siblings and parents all tested positive for the coronavirus more than a year ago, but none of them suffered any symptoms. His dad kept his job as a truck driver, his hours reduced only for a week. And the one close friend who developed a full-blown case of COVID-19 regained full strength in a few days.

It was the absence of his trips to the cineplex — often alone, but never lonely — that Faris could not abide.

“Honestly, the best thing that happened all year long was now, when they finally reopened,” Faris said. “I was more looking forward to the movie theaters reopening than to the schools reopening, than to anything else coming back. The movies mean everything to me, you know?”