After three months of making the most of their home theaters, moviegoers can return to the real thing. Since California lifted the restriction on movie theaters June 12, these businesses have been hard at work meeting safety guidelines and training staff.
Taft was a local trailblazer, opening its Fox Theatre last Friday with a bill of "Trolls World Tour" and "Bloodshot," followed by Ridgecrest Cinemas the next day. In Bakersfield, Studio Movie Grill is the first to reopen on Friday, offering guests dinner and a show. Maya Cinemas will reopen its theaters July 10 with Reading Cinemas Valley Plaza with IMAX, AMC Bakersfield 6 and Regal Bakersfield Stadium 14 to follow suit by mid-July.
Some may not be ready to share a darkened auditorium with strangers — even if the room is only filled at 25 percent capacity — but others are ready to enjoy big-screen fun.
"I'm excited to finally open.," said Teejay Scharf, general manager at Studio Movie Grill. "I know a lot of people in town are too. I'm excited for families that can actually get out and have a good time."
Scharf understands that some people are cautious but said that the health and safety of team members and guests are the top priority.
Sanitization is key for every theater going forward. At SMG, Scharf said team members, led by a manager, will wipe down auditoriums between showings in a process that takes close to an hour. Bathrooms will be cleaned every 30 minutes.
When Maya Cinemas reopens, it will have a designated Clean Team, focused on cleaning and disinfecting auditoriums and bathrooms, according to Greg Heckmann, Maya's creative director.
Ticket sales are capped at 25 percent, per state guidelines and software prevents guests from buying seats too close to others. It's up to individual theaters if they will cap the size of groups seated together. For example, Maya will set the limit at six guests while SMG will allow parties of 10 to sit together, space permitting.
"We've had some large parties ask," Scharf said Tuesday, noting that ticket sales were brisk for the opening weekend schedule with $5-and-under pricing on family classics like "The Goonies" and the first two "Harry Potter" films as well as superhero films "Wonder Woman" and "Aquaman."
Curtis Walchock, manager of the Taft Fox Theatre, said that superhero movies are usually a big draw. This weekend, the theater is adding "The Avengers" to its schedule in the hopes of drawing in more guests.
The Taft theater is using its two smaller theaters, with every other row blocked off, but not its third, 500-seat space, which only has a swamp cooler to beat the heat. (The large auditorium is normally closed in July and reopens in the fall.)
Opening night was not great — with 12 tickets sold between two theaters — but Walchock said he's optimistic that being able to offer titles that people want to see on the big screen (rather than on-demand at home) will help attendance.
"We might have 'Jaws' or 'Jurassic Park' for the Fourth of July," he said. "Since there's nothing new coming out yet, we still have a month to fill."
Theaters reopening in July are preparing for the first new releases in months including the Russell Crowe thriller "Unhinged," Disney's live-action "Mulan" and the Christopher Nolan spy flick "Tenet."
In an effort to minimize contact, theaters are encouraging people to buy tickets online or via their apps. At the theaters, credit or debit cards are preferred over cash. Maya will limit cash transactions to one station at concessions and one at box office.
"We're trying to convert as much as we can for the card," Scharf said of SMG. "But if all they have is cash, we’re not going to turn anybody away."
SMG's self-service kiosks will allow guests to buy tickets as well as order their food and drinks, which can be timed to fire based on when they arrive. (Note: SMG will still card guests wanting alcoholic beverages, with staff handing them the over-21 wristband to put on while they watch.)
Per state guidelines, masks or face coverings are required for guests until they are in their seats.
From hand sanitizers to social distancing, theaters are focused on keeping guests and staff safe while offering a special experience after months at home.
"We are looking forward to bringing our guests back to enjoy the magic of the movies in a safe environment," Maya's Heckmann wrote in an email.
"It's a weird time," Walchock said. "I want people to feel comfortable. Films have been an escape from reality for people. People's mental health is important. I'm happy for Kern County and other places to open up. We’re hoping it gets busier."