Ky Boyd, Rialto Cinemas - GO LOCAL Sonoma County and Kelsey Joy Photography

Over the past decade or so, movie theaters have been the subject of a lot of media speculation.

With the rise of streaming services leading to the demise of DVD rental stores, changes in consumers’ media preferences are always tempting to opine about. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shuttering theaters in the Bay Area for a year, one could be forgiven for thinking that the final scene for cinemas as we knew them had come at last.

However, a few years later, the story of cinemas during the pandemic seems to be more of a grueling seafaring adventure than a slasher film.

Yes, there were fatalities—the total number of cinemas in the U.S. dropped by 5.3% between 2019 and 2022, according to the Cinema Foundation—but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, four North Bay cinema managers said in interviews last week.

While incomes have been painfully low and stubborn to rebound since cinemas began to reopen in 2021, the four cinephiles all credited federal assistance programs with helping them to stay afloat and are holding out hope that an increased number of new releases this year will help draw audiences back to something close to pre-pandemic levels.

In 2022, box office sales nationwide crept up to 64% of 2019 levels, according to the Cinema Foundation’s latest annual report, released in March. Though that’s still bad, it is a marked improvement over abysmal sales levels in 2020 and 2021.

After theaters reopened, crowds were slow to return in part because they fell out of the habit of movie-going but also because the pandemic interrupted film production, bringing down the number of new releases in 2021 and 2022. The good news, according to the Cinema Foundation, is that individual films performed quite well last year—and the number of theater releases is expected to surge this year.

“Box office, on a film-by-film basis, has rebounded to 2019 levels, limited only by the number of wide releases in the marketplace,” the Cinema Foundation report states in part. “The number of wide releases in 2023 is more than 40% higher than 2022 and approaching the number of wide releases in 2019.”

But, one might ask, with revenues so slow to return, why didn’t more movie houses close for good?

One of the heroes of this tale was the federal government, which, in 2021, rode to the rescue (perhaps later than cinemas would have liked) with its newly-formed Shuttered Venue Operator Grant (SVOG) program.

“SVOG provided funding at a level of 45% of your 2019 revenues to help businesses like Rialto Cinemas sustain and be able to relaunch. It’s because of that grant program that we’ve been able to survive,” said Ky Boyd, the proprietor of Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas, mirroring the comments of other North Bay cinema owners and managers.

According to a July 2022 report, the federal Small Business Administration awarded and distributed $14.57 billion in grants to small venue operators, performing arts organizations and movie theaters across the country. (The cinema industry’s largest operators—three publicly traded companies, AMC Entertainment, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark USA, which in 2022 owned a combined 18,578 screens, 48% of the total in the country—were not eligible for SVOG grants.)

Another factor at play may have been small theaters’ creative efforts to stay connected to their customers while streaming services became the easiest options for families stuck at home. As part of this effort, some cinemas resuscitated drive-in movie experiences.

“For the Mill Valley Film Festival 2020, we set up this amazing outdoor drive-in set up at the Civic Center here in San Rafael,” said Dan Zastrow, the programmer and general manager of the Smith Rafael Film Center. “That was a way to keep engaged with our audiences. To say ‘We’re still here. We’re still doing stuff.’ It was not so much of a moneymaker.”

Over in Napa County, the one-screen Cameo Cinema hosted a weekly drive-in movie series between May and October 2020 using the parking lot of local restaurants closed due to COVID health restrictions. While the events weren’t lucrative, Cameo owner and creative director Cathy Buck said they kept the community involved.

“It gave people something to do. We had a lot of people that were autoimmune compromised, and they could come with their families to watch a movie,” Buck said.

For approximately the first year of the pandemic, Rialto Cinemas offered daily recommendations of movies and TV shows available on various streaming services through the theater’s Facebook page.

“We also did this goofy thing we called Popcorn Pickup, where once a week we would sell popcorn on Saturdays, and people would come by and buy popcorn that we would package to go,” Boyd said.

Now that the public health orders around the pandemic have expired and the novelty of streaming brand new films at home has begun to lose its pandemic sheen, cinemas are experimenting with new offerings to remind folks of the community connection in-person films offer.

Specialty events—either a screening with a filmmaker or a benefit for a nonprofit—are one tool for drawing crowds back, according to Zastrow.

“We’ll do a special event with the filmmaker in person, someone they [a viewer] wants to see… They show up, they have a great time, they come out and say, ‘I remember why I used to love coming here, engaging with a filmmaker, being in the theater with people who are enjoying the same content,’” Zastrow said. “And once they experience it again and are reminded of why it was so powerful, then they start coming back. But it’s almost like one person at a time [having that experience].”

Some companies are also making nuts and bolts investments in technology and services. Cinema West Inc., which owns over a dozen cinemas in California and Idaho, recently purchased laser projectors for its Petaluma theater and is in the process of updating its membership benefits program and introducing online ordering for concessions, according to Dave Corkill, Cinema West’s owner.

Other efforts at modernization preceded the pandemic. For instance, in an effort to compete with the convenience of streaming and to increase revenue, many California cinemas started offering beer and wine along with more traditional concessions beginning around 2011.

“It goes to the home experience and what we’re competing with. If somebody can sit at home in their own recliner, have a drink and watch a show on TV, how can we give that person a better experience? Well, we have an electric recliner, and we have a selection of beer and wine and liquor where we can, and you’ll get to watch your movie on a big screen with a bright image,” Corkill said.

During the pandemic, Cinema West closed two theaters in the North Bay—one in Sonoma Valley and the other in Tiburon.

But it’s not all cutbacks. The company still operates Petaluma’s Boulevard 14 Cinema and the Fairfax Theater in Marin County and is in the process of renovating the Larkspur Landing theater, which Cinemark Theaters closed last September.

“We’re reopening the Larkspur Landing theater next month, and we are really confident we’re going to see a lot of interest and have a very popular new venue for guests in that part of the world,” Corkhill said.