San Diego movie theaters reopening in time for ‘Tenet’ release; will audiences show?

Heather and Sam Cunning pose with their masks in one of the theaters at The Lot in Liberty Station.
Ciera Kelton, 34, and Hanna Sandbeck, 35, wear masks in one of the theaters at The Lot located at Liberty Station on Wednesday.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Executives banking on new safety measures and a blockbuster flick to lure consumers indoors


Keith and Judy Melville enjoy watching movies at home on their big-screen TV, but something’s been missing.

“I love movies,” Keith said as he and his wife and son, Patrick, enjoyed some beverages in the lounge outside The Lot in Liberty Station on Wednesday. “The whole experience is different than sitting in your living room.”

The family was there to see the 5 p.m. screening of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and they were looking forward to watching his latest on a big screen with a powerful sound system. Other couples waiting for the movie said it was just nice to have a real date night again.

The Lot’s luxury theaters in La Jolla and Liberty Station were some of the first theaters to open in San Diego County — one of the only counties in the state that can welcome indoor moviegoers once again. Cinépolis theaters are scheduled to open on Thursday and AMC theaters on Friday. Regal theaters and other locations will also be welcoming viewers after a five-month, pandemic-induced hiatus.

“Tenet,” the hotly anticipated spy film featuring John David Washington as an unnamed CIA agent, is the first major film in months to open on the big screen, and theater executives are hoping the $200 million blockbuster and a host of new safety features will draw big crowds.

But will it be enough to persuade strangers to sit inside in front of a screen together for hours during a pandemic?

The movie industry certainly hopes so. Domestic ticket sales so far this year total $1.8 billion, a 78 percent decline from the same period in 2019.

Some locations are seeing encouraging signs. The Lot said that as of Wednesday afternoon, its Liberty Station location had already sold more than 300 tickets for showings scheduled between Wednesday and Sunday, including more than 80 tickets for Wednesday’s opening night showings.

Is that the power of cinema? Luis Obloquy, CEO of Cinépolis USA thinks so. The company runs 30 locations across the country with four reopening in San Diego County this week.

“Cinema has survived all these years because shared experience is at the fabric of who we are,” Obloquy said. “Perhaps even more so today.”

But some experts are doubtful.

“There’s no question that people’s attitudes towards going to the movies have been, in my view, permanently impacted by the pandemic,” said Tom Nunan, lecturer at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “I predict the response from people for quite some time will be, ‘Is this really worth it?’”

Guests watch trailers before a screening of "Tenet" at The Lot in Liberty Station on Wednesday.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

To persuade moviegoers that the silver screen experience is safe, many theaters — locally and nationwide — have opted to participate in CinemaSafe. The program, unveiled by chief executives of the nation’s largest theater chains a couple of weeks ago, includes protocols on mask requirements and air-filtration systems.

The protocols include enhanced cleaning procedures, expanded mobile ticketing options when possible, employee health training and modified concession stands. Say goodbye to communal popcorn dressing stations.

Visitors can expect to see a lot of signage reminding them to socially distance, and the empty seat between parties that people usually adhere to naturally is now mandatory. Hand sanitizer will be readily available.

California’s new rules also limit the number of guests to 25 percent of the movie theater’s capacity or 100 attendees — whichever is lower. And in San Diego, all attendees must wear a face mask unless they are eating or drinking.

At the lounge outside The Lot in Liberty Station, Eric Mimms and Danni Napoli of Murrieta were having drinks before watching “Tenet.” The two met just five months ago, and this would be the first film they have seen together as a couple.

“I loved going to movies,” Mimms said. “Me and my son would go out once every two weeks.”

Napoli said she likes theaters with surround sound, and Mimms said he has strong memories of where he first saw “Star Wars” and other major films.

“There’s some iconic movies you look back on and remember the whole experiencing of going to the theater,” he said.

The couple said they were not worried about contracting the coronavirus at the theater.

“We always wash our hands when we’re supposed to, and we do go out,” Napoli said. “We’re still trying to stay active.”

Mimms said he didn’t see going to the theater as any more dangerous than going grocery shopping. After all, he said, you never know who touched that banana before you.

Heather and Sam Cunning pose with their masks in one of the theaters at The Lot in Liberty Station.
Heather and Sam Cunning pose with their masks in one of the theaters at The Lot in Liberty Station.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

At another table nearby, Heather and Sam Cunning of El Cajon said The Lot was their favorite theater, and they were looking forward to seeing their first film in months.

“It was date night for us,” Heather said. “We’d have dinner and go to a movie. We’d see all the major blockbusters. You have to see ‘Tenet’ on a big screen.”

“It’s just fun to get out of the house,” Sam said.

The couple said the outing was the first indoor activity they have had in months, but they weren’t nervous about the coronavirus, either. They wear masks and wash their hands when out, but basically are homebodies, they said.

“You try to be conscientious, but live life, too,” Heather said. “It’s nice to be normal again.”