COLUMBIA — It was an eerily quiet Wednesday night in the lobby of the Regal Columbiana Grande 14, the large cinema just off the busy Harbison Boulevard shopping district several miles north of downtown Columbia
Customers wearing masks and clutching smartphones stopped and let an usher scan their digital tickets, then shuffled toward the concession stand, mostly able to ignore the social distancing markers on the floor near the counter, simply because the crowd was so small that keeping distance from other groups wasn’t really an issue.
After grabbing popcorn and the requisite buckets of Pepsi, moviegoers ambled off to find their respective auditoriums, likely hoping to put the troubles of 2020 behind them, at least for a couple hours.
Down in auditorium three, The Last Shift, starring Richard Jenkins, was playing. The dramedy from director Andrew Cohn is about a man working his final shift at a fast food restaurant after nearly 40 years, but on Oct. 7, the title of the film also felt ominously apropos.
Regal, the nation’s second largest cinema chain, had recently announced that it would shutter its theaters — again — on Oct. 8. It, like many other chains and independent movie houses, had previously closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regal and other chains started reopening in late August, with capacity limitations, enhanced sanitation, social distancing and other safety protocols in place. But audiences have been slow to return, and studios have continued to delay the big releases most likely to draw people to theaters.
Director Christopher Nolan’s action mindbender Tenet, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, bowed in early September and was thought to be something of a test for audiences’ willingness to get back to cinemas. The film has underwhelmed at the North American box office, posting a $20 million opening the first weekend of September, and grossing just $45 million domestically as of Oct. 8.
A decade ago, Nolan’s Inception — like Tenet, a well-reviewed, high-concept, special-effects-laden blowout — had a $62 million opening and went on to a nearly $300 million domestic cume. 2017’s Dunkirk, the most recent film from the director who might be Hollywood’s most reliable draw behind the camera, opened to more than $50 million domestically, and went on to gross more than $188 million at U.S. box offices, galloping past industry expectations for a period-anchored World War II flick.
And studios have continued to push back their would-be tentpole pictures. From Disney and Marvel’s Black Widow to director Denis Villeneuve’s expensive remake of Dune, numerous potential blockbusters have delayed their releases to 2021. Cineworld — the parent company of Regal — announced the latest closure of its theaters after MGM said that No Time to Die, it’s latest James Bond outing, already moved from its original April 2020 release date, was being kicked from November to April 2021.
On a local level, the temporary shuttering of Regal theaters leaves a sizable hole in Columbia’s moviegoing landscape. The chain has four theaters in the Midlands — the aforementioned Columbiana Grande, the Northlake Village in Lexington, the Sandhill 16 in the Northeast and the Regal Columbia near Forest Acres.
Aside from Regal’s move, there are also some independent theaters that are temporarily closed. The Nickelodeon Theatre, the city’s only arthouse cinema, has been closed for months amid the virus. The Big Mo drive-in out in nearby Monetta has only been doing rare special screenings and events. And the Spotlight Capital 8, near Columbia Place Mall, is temporarily closed, though owner Rick Phillips said he’s considering doing some some drive-in events at that location.
There are a handful of theaters in Columbia still open, as of Oct. 8.
One is Spotlight’s discount theater on St. Andrews Road. That location features $3 tickets, and has been showing classics and films from earlier this year. (Hocus Pocus and The Empire Strikes Back were among the offerings at the five-screen cineplex, as of Oct. 8.)
And AMC Theatres — the nation’s largest theater chain — has several locations operating locally, including the Dutch Square 14, the Harbison 14, and the Columbia 10 on Forest Drive. (Dutch Square and the Columbia 10 have been showing films on the weekends, while the Harbison 14 has been screening them throughout the week.)
In an Oct. 6 story from The Hollywood Reporter, AMC leaders said they don’t currently have plans to temporarily close, as Regal did.
It’s been an odd year for avid moviegoers in the Midlands.
Columbia’s Taylor Kearns, a video services manager at the NP Strategy public relations firm, is a longtime movie fan and, in a normal year, a frequent cinema attendee.
The 36-year-old waxes nostalgic about getting excited when his mother slipped a newspaper page under his door when he was a kid, showing an ad for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, which they soon went to see. As an adult, he said he relishes the opportunity to hit matinee showings of movies from filmmakers like director Paul Thomas Anderson, taking in those offerings “as they’re meant to be seen,” on the big screen.
But he hasn’t been back to theaters since many reopened a bit more than a month ago. He said the prevalence of COVID-19 still makes him hesitant.
“I think if there was something out that I was really, really looking to see I might have gone,” Kearns said. “Something like Tenet, I probably would have picked up if it were normal times. I love going to movies, and usually when I do go, it’s to a matinee. ... When you introduce a virus into (the world), I feel like, ‘Well, maybe I’ll sit this one out.’
“Going to movies has always been a fun escape, and I’d really like to be able to do that now, but it’s tough when you see everything that’s going on and the hardships people are going through.”
But even with his hesitance about COVID-19, Kearns concedes that, if studios were releasing more big movies, he might be tempted to go.
“They are kicking back all these release dates,” he said. “If there were some bigger releases out that really made me want to go see it, then I would go see it. ... It’s a bummer. But in the grand scale of the apocalypse of the world right now, it feels like another unfortunate casualty.”