EDITOR'S NOTE: Multimedia journalist Sarah Pilla visits the Vista Theater in Los Feliz to see how they feel about Warner Bros. releasing its entire 2021 slate of films on its streaming platform, HBO Max, while simultaneously releasing them in theaters. Click the arrow above to watch the video.
The last movie to screen at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz seems prophetic — it was the Disney film Onward, about a pair of teenage elves who need to overcome impossible obstacles to spend another day with their dad.
"You do the karma on that," said Lance Alspaugh, CEO of Vintage Cinemas, which owns the Vista and Los Feliz theatres in Northeast Los Angeles. Like every other theatre in L.A., the two were forced to shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, Alspaugh thought, "we were looking at a few months." But now he's like Onward's elfen brothers Ian and Barley, hopefully soldiering on, against all odds. Instead of reopening, movie theatres remain in a state of suspension, waiting for relief from a pandemic that has only worsened, resulting in a new stay-at-home order for the city that is sure to delay in-person screenings until well into the new year, despite the impending arrival of a vaccine.
And there is the additional complication of major movie studios deciding to release their films straight to streaming, as Warner Bros. announced last week. The Burbank studio will release all 17 of its films next year on its streaming service, HBO Max, at the same time they're made available in theatres. On Thursday, Disney made a similar announcement, saying it will simultaneously release its new animated feature film Raya and the Last Dragon in cinemas and its Disney Plus streaming service on March 5.
Major studios releasing movies simultaneously in theatres and on streaming services, "the formula doesn't sound too good to me," Alspaugh said. "There's nothing like a movie theatre, where there's a group of strangers watching a movie together laughing, crying, scared. It's hard to match that feeling. You're not going to get that in your living room."
In addition to its two theatres in Los Feliz, Vintage Cinemas also operates the Village Coronado in San Diego, which was temporarily allowed to reopen at 25% capacity when the pandemic had calmed. Alspaugh decided against it.
"Any theatre, it's going to be difficult to operate at 25% capacity," he said. "At some point, though, you have to roll the dice. Either get off [the] stage or roll the dice and reopen. We are all eager to reopen. We are looking to get back to work as quickly as possible and open for the audience."
That audience, he said, has had no choice but to make do with home screenings during the pandemic but has been missing the in-person moviegoing experience. "People are dying to get back out, whether it's here or elsewhere. Everyone has been locked up for ten months," he said.
The rare single-screen theatre in L.A., the Vista is 97 years old and has weathered many storms. Alspaugh is determined to make sure it also endures the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I'm not a quitter," he said, adding that Vintage Cinemas has dipped into a rainy day fund to keep it afloat while waiting for the all-clear to reopen. "We want to come back when it's safe to come back, and when we're allowed to come back, and I have no intention of going away yet. It's just not quite time."
Other chains may not be so lucky. The world's largest cinema chain, AMC Theatres, reported in an SEC filing Friday that it will run out of cash next month. It said it will need more than $750 million to keep its theatres open. AMC operates 594 cinemas in the U.S.