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Utah movie theaters make plans for a ‘bounce back’ summer

Big chains prepare for blockbuster-loving audiences, while Salt Lake City’s art houses wait until fall.

(Photo by Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Megaplex Theatres at Valley Fair, in West Valley City, is shown on June 15, 2021, open for customers. Megaplex executives expect a big summer, as audience return to watch blockbusters that were delayed during the summer of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Update: On Wednesday, June 23, Brewvies Cinema Pub announced that it would reopen on Thursday, June 24.

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Blake Andersen is in the business of selling movie tickets — and business is looking good.

“It feels like we’re finally there, that the light finally arrived at the end of the tunnel,” said Andersen, president of the Utah-based Megaplex Theatres chain. “It has been really refreshing, between the long dry spell and the pent-up demand for good new Hollywood movies, and the quality of movies that are being released.”

After more than a year when movie theaters were either closed completely or selling limited tickets because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and Hollywood studios postponed releases or shifted films to streaming platforms — it’s predicted that audiences will be eager to return to movie theaters this summer.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Imax CEO Richard Gelfond told investors Tuesday, “I expect the U.S. to bounce back very quickly. Clearly, there’s a tremendous amount of pent-up demand.”

The early box office numbers seem to back up that sentiment, though not across the board.

“F9,” the ninth installment of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, made more than $200 million in China in its first three weekends there — and that’s before any U.S. audiences got to see it; the movie opens domestically on June 25.

The monster-movie sequel “A Quiet Place Part II,” which opened only in theaters on May 28, became the first movie post-pandemic to earn $100 million at the box office, in its third weekend of release.

“To be able to hit those kind of national numbers when we’re still on the end of the pandemic, where there’s just some caution out there … is amazing,” said Andersen, whose company owns 14 theater locations from Logan to St. George (plus one in Mesquite, Nev.). “It just shows that people want to see movies where they’re meant to be seen.”

Not every new movie has flourished, though. Last weekend’s opening numbers for “In the Heights,” Warner Bros.’ movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical, came in at a somewhat disappointing $11.5 million.

Three factors worked against “In the Heights”: It doesn’t have big-name stars; musicals tend to appeal to older audiences; and it was released on the HBO Max streaming platform the same day it hit theaters.

Andersen said Warner Bros. has told exhibitors that its distribution model “is still being adjusted — and that was a COVID model. We’re working with each of the studios to come up with what will be the sweet spot for all of us.”

The biggest question mark, Andersen said, is what Disney will do. The company has debuted some big movies, such as “Mulan” and “Cruella,” to run in theaters and on its Disney+ streaming service — though at an extra charge. Disney will do the same with Marvel’s “Black Widow” (opening July 9) and its Disneyland-inspired “Jungle Cruise” (opening July 30), but not for its next Marvel movie, “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (opening Sept. 3).

“They’re still pushing Disney+ very hard. It’s their new shiny penny,” Andersen said, adding that while most studios have committed to a theatrical “window” — the term for how long a new movie will play in theaters before any at-home release — Disney is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit arts group that operates Broadway Centre Cinemas and Tower Theatre, is also in a wait-and-see stance. The group has told its patrons that it won’t reopen its theaters to in-person screenings until fall.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Tower Theatre, in downtown Salt Lake City — along with its sister theater, the Broadway Centre Cinemas — has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is set to reopen sometime in fall 2021.

“That’s our strategic choice at this point, based on the programs we’re doing, and the bandwidth of the staff — as well as ensuring that when we come back, we’re giving the experience that the donors and patrons of the Broadway and the Tower deserve,” said Tori A. Baker, CEO and president of the Salt Lake Film Society.

While summer usually is filled with blockbuster films, it’s “traditionally the low season for an art house,” Baker said, as those titles are usually held back for award-season campaigns in the fall and winter.

After closing its theaters’ doors in March 2020, the Salt Lake Film Society became one of the first art house organizations in the country to launch its own “virtual cinema,” creating an online portal to stream independent movies for a fee comparable to the price of a movie ticket.

The portal, called SLFS@Home, was so successful, Baker said, that the film society worked with art houses in other cities to develop their own versions.

One benefit to the portal, Baker said, is that touring film festivals can connect more directly to audiences. When such tours are staged in theaters, maybe one of the filmmakers will make the trip to Salt Lake City, Baker said, while in a virtual format, all of the filmmakers involved can participate via a Zoom chat.

This summer, the film society has added another program, the Studio Backlot Motor Cinema, a drive-in presented with Utah movie-equipment supplier Redman Movies and Stories. The drive-in screens classic and indie movies on Friday and Saturday nights.

Over the pandemic, the Megaplex chain, like SLFS, sold popcorn curbside. Megaplex reopened to limited crowds last summer and fall, screening classic movies to handfuls of patrons seated well apart.

The national chains are also returning in full, after tentative reopenings this spring. AMC Theatres, which operates three locations in Utah, is back to screening films seven days a week, after running only three days a week for several months. Regal Theatres reopened its single Utah multiplex, in Taylorsville, in April. Cinemark, which runs 15 Utah locations, is planning a big “Cinema Week” promotion June 22-27 — with special events at 12 locations across the country, including at the Cinemark 24 Jordan Landing in West Jordan.

Megaplex has been adding luxury seating to some of its locations. The company kept some auditoriums in its Jordan Commons location closed while it installed new seats. It also shuttered the Megaplex Gateway for several months for a full renovation that included luxury accommodations; that theater is expected to reopen later this summer.

Brewvies Cinema Pub announced to patrons, in its newsletter, that it will reopen on Thursday, June 24, screening “F9: The Fast Saga.” The theater, the only one in the state that also serves alcohol, has added a patio to its bar section, and new seating in the auditoriums.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brewvies Cinema Pub, in downtown Salt Lake City, will reopen on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Oddly, with the Broadway, Tower, Megaplex Gateway and Brewvies closed, the only movie theaters open within the city limits of Salt Lake City are the Cinemark Sugarhouse and the Redwood Drive-In. For another couple of months, at least, the suburbs are where the moviegoing action is.

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(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures) Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, left) and Dom (Vin Diesel) return for more automotive action in "F9," the ninth installment in the "Fast & Furious" franchise, scheduled to be released in theaters on June 25, 2021.

With some studios still playing it safe and releasing movies in theaters as well as on streaming platforms, what are the big movies that can be found only in theaters? Here are seven that might make you consider breaking your home lockdown:

“F9” (June 25) • Justin Lin — who directed the third, fifth and sixth installments of the “Fast & Furious” saga — returns for No. 9, which pits Vin Diesel’s Dom Torretto against an assassin (John Cena) who’s also his brother. They keep saying it’s about family.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (July 16) • Documentarian Morgan Neville — who has spotlighted backup singers (“20 Feet From Stardom”) and Fred Rogers (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) — traces the life of celebrity chef, author and world traveler Anthony Bourdain, who died of suicide in 2018.

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (July 23) • The most enigmatic member of the G.I. Joe team gets a creation story, with Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) starring as the man behind the mask. Robert Schwentke (“RED,” “Insurgent”) directs.

“The Green Knight” (July 30) • Dev Patel plays the naive Gawain in this take on an Arthurian legend, directed with plenty of visual panache (judging by the trailer) by David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “A Ghost Story”).

“Free Guy” (Aug. 13) • Ryan Reynolds plays a regular guy, named Guy, who discovers he’s a nonplayable character in a video game, in this action comedy directed by Shawn Levy (“A Night at the Museum”).

“Respect” (Aug. 13) • Jennifer Hudson plays R&B singer Aretha Franklin in this biopic, the feature debut for director Liesl Tommy.

“Candyman” (Aug. 27) • Fast-rising director Nia DaCosta (“Little Woods”) and producer Jordan Peele are behind this sequel of sorts to the 1992 horror classic. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Dr. Manhattan in HBO’s “Watchmen”) plays a painter who becomes obsessed with the hook-handed legend, threatening his sanity and the life of his art-dealer girlfriend (Teyonah Parris, from “WandaVision”).

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