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Reagan Redd was a little lukewarm about Dune — too slow, she said — but she still felt reeled in enough to catch the next one. “Visually, it was beautiful, and it smoked the David Lynch version … the mystery and the aura they created around the magic was great,” Redd said. 

“I’d never been a big moviegoer before,” she said, after watching Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the sci-fi classic at the Roadhouse Cinemas on North Nevada Avenue. The last movie she saw in a theater was Frozen 2, back in November of 2019. 

“If you had told me before the pandemic that they would be streaming all of these high-end films, I would have been excited — but now I’m so sick of sitting at home and watching movies, I really want to go out to movie theaters,” she said. 

Redd isn’t alone — after two of the hardest years in the history of cinema, American viewers are headed back into theaters. The surge is driven by a strong slate of films that were held back or delayed during the pandemic, as well as higher vaccination rates.

Caitlin Piper is the senior manager of PR and corporate communications for Cinemark, which has two locations in Colorado Springs.

“It has been a very long-awaited and exciting past few months,” Piper said. “In October, with Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Cinemark had its biggest October opening of any film, ever.” With the coming slate of films, she feels more confident about the immediate future of the industry than she has in a long time. 

“Looking into 2022, it’s absolutely stacked with an incredible list of films,” said Piper, citing the Spider-Man and Matrix franchises in particular.

According to Piper, the resurgence is centered around four key factors: the status of the virus and the vaccination rate; easing government restrictions; consumer sentiment; and the steady stream of new content.

Right now there are no major COVID-based government-mandated restrictions on audience capacity, and people are starting to feel much more confident about watching movies in theaters. According to Piper, 77 percent of moviegoers now feel comfortable going back into theaters. 

The resurgence is driven in large part by young males, she said, who are coming back to theaters faster and more confidently.

“Very reasonably and understandably, that older demographic is not coming back quite as fast … but we expect them to, as vaccinations increase and the virus decreases,” Piper said.

Kimball Bayles isn’t so sure. The owner of Kimball’s Peak Three Theater Downtown, Bayles worries that these last two years could have a permanent dampening effect.

“Beyond people being afraid of coming back … my worry is that the pandemic has pushed people into a mode of watching at home,” Bayles said. 

As a small theater that plays mostly independent and foreign films, Bayles is more reliant on an older crowd, some of whom are still quite hesitant to set foot in a crowded cinema.

“There is a segment that is still freaked out about whatever the newest variant is, and they’re not feeling comfortable coming back. … It’s improving, but it’s nothing like before,” Bayles said.

While business isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels by any stretch, that doesn’t mean Bayles hasn’t been able to capitalize on the wave of held-back content to some extent. 

“Hollywood held back all these films and then just dumped them out … so there is a slate of really good films, and we are riding the crest of that wave right now, which is good,” he said.

“There is still an audience — primarily our audience — that is reluctant to come back, so movies that would normally do well for us, haven’t been,” Bayles said. He points to Belfast, a recent Kenneth Branagh film chronicling the lives of a working class family in the Northern Ireland capital in the 1960s. 

“It didn’t do well at all — as opposed to say, The French Dispatch, which is attracting kind of a younger, hipster crowd …” he said. “It’s not a blockbuster like some of Anderson’s old films, but it’s doing business, for sure.”

David Lindsay is the general manager at Kimball’s Peak Three Theater, and he’s busy with several new initiatives.

“There are fewer and fewer Kimball’s-like theaters in the world, so we want to dig our heels in and be more of what we are, and less of the mainstream,” he said.

Lindsay said the Downtown fixture is making some renovations, including creating a bar/lounge that will seat about 40 and will screen classic indie films the theater has played in the past.  “You can come in, maybe grab a glass of wine and a sandwich and sit down to watch, but you’re not paying for a movie,” he said.

The government-enforced restrictions and shutdowns of the pandemic were a very close call for many smaller arthouse venues like Kimball’s Peak Three.

“If I’m being honest, I’m surprised Gov. [Jared] Polis hasn’t been sued yet,” said Lindsay. “While he was shutting movies, the bars and comedy clubs down, he told retail they could go back to 100 percent capacity … but we [movie theaters] can’t open back up, we’re the plague center of the world?” asked Lindsay. 

In other respects, Kimball’s has been lucky.

“The landlord has been really good with us, he forgave a lot of the rent. … It was touch and go — we could have easily just folded. But we got some local grant money, and some federal money with the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant,” Bayles said. 

Piper notes that March 2020 was a historic blow for the industry, and marked the first time Cinemark had ever been forced to close all its theaters, across the Unites States as well as Central and South America.

“The [theater] industry had never had to completely close in its entire existence, so it was a dramatic impact from the pandemic,” she said. “Retailers could go to online shopping, but there was not a similar opportunity for movie theaters as they closed their doors.” 

But Piper now has her eye on 2022. 

“We’ve got a steady stream of content that will appeal to a wide range of moviegoers, so we are excited,” Piper said, and Cinemark is rolling out all kinds of new methods of reducing the number of interactions at its theaters, including more kiosks where customers can purchase tickets, and even a plan to pre-order concessions.

So whether it’s a small independent art house cinema or a conglomerate, the industry has plans to retool at every level. But one of the biggest draws to put moviegoers back in seats may be much simpler. 

“I might go see Eternals if it’s still out when I have a free weekend,” Redd said. “I have a major crush on Kumail Nanjiani.”