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With movie theaters reopened, dedicated employees predict a major Hollywood comeback

A masked young man stands between two movie posters
Brenden Perella waits for patrons to arrive at the El Capitan Theatre, in the heart of Hollywood, for an afternoon showing of Marvel Studios’ “Black Widow,” on July 9.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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When Amandla Bearden was hired as a guest attendant at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in downtown Los Angeles in July 2019, he was thrilled.

“Any time you get to be around movies in any way, it’s a lucky day,” says the aspiring actor, who earned a master’s in drama at UC Irvine in 2017. “There’s a lot of other stuff people are doing — plumbing, digging ditches, construction — so to do anything that delves into movies is icing on the cake.”

Bearden never imagined that just eight months later, in mid-March 2020, the Drafthouse, along with every other movie theater in the country, would shut its doors for more than a year as a devastating pandemic swept the globe.

For the estimated roughly 100,000 workers employed in movie theaters in America, the last year has been an emotional roller coaster, from the financial insecurity and existential anxiety of the shutdown to the celebration of the reopening as the pandemic has gradually eased over the last few months.

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Still, while the box office has recently shown fresh signs of life thanks to the success of “A Quiet Place Part II,” “F9" and “Black Widow,” uncertainty lingers in the exhibition industry as studios increasingly shift their distribution models toward streaming and some moviegoers remain wary of gathering indoors with strangers.

The Times spoke with six workers at theaters around L.A. about the difficulties their cinemas — and they themselves — have faced in the last year, the new post-pandemic normal and their on-the-ground view of the future of moviegoing.

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A year in limbo

Bearden: We had all heard about COVID ramping up around the world. It’s almost like you can see a car accident coming and you brace for it; you know, we don’t have a force field around America. Then, sure enough, when it seemed like things were actually going to shut down, Alamo mailed out a letter, letting us know we were going to be closed. They gave us a rent exemption letter to show your landlord or whoever you needed to let know.

James M. Wood, general manager, El Capitan Theatre: I’ve worked here for 20 years, and I’d dreamed of being the general manager, running this grand movie palace on Hollywood Boulevard. I became the general manager at the end of February 2020. In my wildest dreams I never thought I’d have to shut the theater down three weeks into my new job.

Cassie Gratton, general manager, Laemmle Glendale and Laemmle NewHall: I was watching the news on Sunday and I heard all movie theaters are closing starting tomorrow. I called my boss and I was like, “Hey, they just said theaters are done,” and he said, “Let me get back to you.” That Monday, I had to come to the theater and break everything down. It was nuts.

A theater exterior has a marquee that says "Be safe"
The marquee of Landmark’s Nuart Theatre photographed in April 2020 after the theater shut down.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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Jim Nicola, general manager, Landmark’s Nuart Theatre: We had started having guests that were scheduled to appear for Q&As beginning to cancel, and the “Rocky Horror” cast chose not to perform that weekend. So we knew it was getting serious. There was still some hope that we would get through it just with a limited schedule. But then the news came down that we were closing. That was a sad day, turning off everything in the theater and walking away.

Brenden Perella, theater host, El Capitan Theatre: I was here the last day. It was definitely shocking. You know, you’re working, you’re busy, and then out of nowhere it has to stop. Not by your choice or even by the job’s choice — just the world was shutting down.

Shelly Bridges, general manager, the Landmark: I remember going grocery shopping that night and the shelves were empty and I’m thinking, “OK, well, I’m not going to have a paycheck, and I don’t know how unemployment works.” It was all just bizarre. Each week you’re thinking, “Oh, maybe next week, maybe next week.” And it just kept getting pushed further and further back.

A man wearing a mask cleans the tables attached to movie seats in an empty theater.
Guest attendant Amandla Bearden wipes down tables between showings at the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Perella: I work in a skate park for the city of Glendale on the side and that’s outdoors, so for the first couple of months I kept busy working there. Then they decided that it was time to close even outdoor things.

Gratton: My wife works at a vegan restaurant called the Wild Chive in Long Beach. They had just bought their brick-and-mortar and were set to open last June in the middle of the pandemic. So I helped them open the restaurant and started working part time with them. It was a way for me to stay busy and they needed help, so it worked out.

Nicola: I have two other managers, and I think they were a little more productive [during the shutdown] than I was. One self-published a children’s book with amazing watercolors; another learned an effects editing program. I pretty much spent most of my days taking the dogs out for two-and-a-half-hour walks through Cheviot Hills.

Bridges: I started a YouTube channel about unemployment so that I’d have a way to get that information to my staff without it officially coming from the company. Unfortunately, I found that a lot of people needed that kind of content, so that did well for me. In some ways, there were positives that came out of that year: people doing projects that they had put off for a long time, completing things they had put on the back burner, spending time with family. Two employees wrote novels in the time they were off.

Bearden: I thought, let me just go ahead and take this time, get on unemployment for a minute and focus on acting, writing, reading. I started reading the “Game of Thrones” books. I was just trying to put stuff into my creative cookie jar.

A man sits in an empty theater
James Wood, general manager of the El Capitan Theatre, poses for a portrait before an afternoon showing of “Black Widow.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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The thrill of reopening and the new normal

Wood: The first day back, the elation of people coming in the front doors was unreal. I think that the thing that really got most people was the popcorn smell. I saw people break into tears when they came back into the theater. There was one gentleman who for as long as I can remember had been coming with his wife. He brought his wife’s ashes with him because he said this was what they did together: go to the movies at the El Cap. It was emotional.

Nicola: People were excited to see us opened. It must have been a sad sight, driving by on Santa Monica Boulevard for a full year and just seeing this dark marquee. We opened with a weeklong tribute to films shot in Los Angeles. The first night was “The Big Lebowski,” and it was a good turnout. Attendance now might be maybe 50% of where we were before closing. But it’s slowly building back.

Gratton: We definitely cut down on staffing. We’re at the bare minimum right now. All the managers do regular duties with the staff: help at the concession or sell tickets or clean the theaters. But that’s kind of the way I’ve always managed. We’re the only theater in Glendale right now; the other theaters, the Studio Movie Grill and the one in the Galleria, are not open. So people are really happy and eager to come out.

Bridges: Our guests have been great. Most people are still wearing their masks, especially on arrival. Some ask, “Am I allowed to take this off?” And we’re very happy to say if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re more than welcome to take off the mask. But most people seem to be more comfortable just kind of keeping it on. When we first opened, it was a little slow but every week we get busier and busier and we’re able to call more and more of our staff back.

A man in a corridor lined with movie posters
Bearden carries drink orders from the kitchen to the auditorium at the Alamo Drafthouse.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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The post-pandemic future

Gratton: I honestly think that theaters being closed for that long made people realize how much they liked going out and seeing something on the big screen. I think it will start to get busier after July, maybe August. Then all those Oscar movies will start coming out in November. I think it’s going to come back on top. It’s just gonna take a little bit of time for people to trust.

Bridges: I’m pretty optimistic. I think even when people have the choice to see a movie at home, often they are going to choose to see it in the theater anyway. At home, your cellphone is going to go off and you might look at it, whereas in the theater — at least in our theater — most of our guests are really respectful and there’s not that distraction. There is just a certain buzz in the air when you’re seeing a movie with a group of strangers for the first time.

A woman helps a customer in front of a popcorn machine
The concessions stand inside El Capitan Theatre on July 9.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Nicola: There’s been talk about the death of movie theaters for a while, but they have survived. You can stream all you want, but nothing compares to sitting in a big room in an audience and watching a movie on a massive screen. There are some things you can’t replicate.

Bearden: Unless you’re Shaquille O’Neal and you actually have a movie theater at the crib, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to replace that experience, no matter how easily accessible it is. In an odd way, I think it’s going to turn back into a golden era for film. I remember before I started working for Alamo, I was like, “Dang, people go to the movies in their pajamas, like they’re going into the kitchen.” Now it’s back to being an event: “Let me call up the homies, let’s get dressed, let’s get a drink.” In a weird way, it’s cycling back.

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