Movie Fans Returning to Los Angeles Theaters Find Thrill in Just Showing Up

The Four Percent

LOS ANGELES—Film buffs flocked into Los Angeles-area theaters this weekend, eager to turn the page on the pandemic that forced them to spend a year watching movies from home.

“I didn’t even care what movie was going to play. I just wanted to get back to the movies,” said Ken Ruiz, 52, a computer programmer and part-time stand-up comic who, on Friday, bought a ticket to see

Walt Disney Co.

’s latest animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” at the company’s famed Hollywood theater El Capitan.

The theater, a historic treasure that opened in 1926, is on one of Los Angeles’ busiest thoroughfares, Hollywood Boulevard. At it, and other theaters in the city, masks are required, spaces have been sanitized, concession vendors sell everything prepackaged from behind plexiglass and capacity is limited to 25% or 100 people, whichever is less.

For months, executives at Hollywood’s biggest studios and theater chains said that when big-city markets like Los Angeles and New York reopened, combined with a successful rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine, it would help revive the theater business.

Miss me?

Now, after theaters in New York opened two weeks ago and those in Los Angeles this weekend, the industry will get a look at how desperate moviegoers might be to return. Pre-pandemic, Los Angeles accounted for about 8% of domestic moviegoing—America’s largest metropolitan theatrical market—according to media measurement company Comscore.

The first reopening weekend in L.A., brought out the die-hards.

“It’s kind of an emotional day,” Mr. Ruiz said, eyes watering after his first movie-theater visit since March 2020. “I’m just so happy to get back to the theater.”

Movie theaters hold a special place in L.A.’s history and economy. So when many theaters there threw open their doors Friday for the first time in a year, people showed up, in some cases filling every seat available.

With restricted audience size, El Capitan felt more like an 11 a.m. Tuesday matinee. Still, General Manager James Wood posed for photographs with local news crews, ecstatic to see movie fans again in the halls where he’s worked for two decades.

Mr. Wood had the poor luck of ascending to his current post right before lockdowns shut down public spaces. “My whole focus was on this moment,” Mr. Wood said, pleased that two of the day’s four screenings had sold out at limited capacity. “People want to come back to the movies.”

Kelly Marie Tran, left, a voice cast member in the Disney animated film ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ and co-director Carlos Lopez Estrada, introduce the film to the audience Friday at El Capitan.


Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

With no more than a hundred people in the approximately 1,000-seat El Capitan, people weren’t shy about putting feet up on chairs in front of them or pulling down their masks to munch on snacks.

Data collected by National Research Group, which has tracked moviegoer sentiment for 40 years, says 57% of those polled before the weekend expressed comfort with the prospect of returning to theaters, up from a low of 19% in April 2020.

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Though theaters around the U.S. have been slowly reopening in recent months, attendance has been sluggish as Hollywood studios shelved would-be big-screen spectacles like Paramount Pictures’ “Top Gun: Maverick,” starring Tom Cruise, and the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” from MGM Holdings Inc.

“Seeing all the movies keep getting pushed back and back and back kept breaking my heart,” said Allison Sharpley, who on Friday ventured out on her lonesome to her favorite local theater, AMC’s Century City 15, so she could see Universal Pictures’ Oscar-nominated “Promising Young Woman,” a darkly comedic tale of revenge.

Like “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Promising Young Woman” can also be streamed at home.

The 45-year-old healthcare professional now works at a vaccine clinic doling out as many as 400 vaccinations a day. She said she tried drive-ins during the pandemic to support Hollywood, as many of her friends work in the business. But sitting in a car or watching from home doesn’t compare, she said.

El Capitan’s General Manager James Wood was excited to see the famed Hollywood theater open again.


R.T. Watson/The Wall Street Journal

“I didn’t want to see ‘Wonder Woman’ for the first time on my dinky 32-inch TV,” she said. “There’s something about that experience and sharing that experience with a bunch of other people. That’s why I come.”

But many people did watch “Wonder Woman 1984” at home as

AT&T Inc.’s

Warner Bros. movie studio released the film in theaters and online in an effort to attract consumers to its fledgling streaming service HBO Max.

During the pandemic, Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., Disney and Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures have all released more new movies online, a move that put many theater owners on their heels. Before, movie theaters’ coveted exclusivity window—the time when movies are available only in theaters—was the bedrock of their business. Domestic box-office revenues plunged to $2.2 billion in 2020, down from $11.4 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association.

With Los Angeles open again, the country’s largest theater chain,

AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.,

says 98% of its theaters are now operational. But the nation’s second-largest chain,

Cineworld Group

PLC’s Regal Entertainment Group, has yet to reopen in America. Third-largest chain

Cinemark Holdings Inc.

now has about 90% of its theaters open.

The world’s largest streaming service,

Netflix Inc.,

doesn’t depend on selling theater tickets for revenue, but the company still chose to project its black-and-white film “Mank” in some Los Angeles-area theaters ahead of this year’s Oscars on April 25. Some moviegoers on Friday headed to the theater to see it on the big screen.

“Mank,” which nabbed more Academy Award nominations than any other movie in this year’s Oscar field, goes behind the scenes into the making of what many critics call the greatest film of all time, director Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.”

Nearly 80 years ago, Mr. Welles held the movie’s Hollywood premiere at El Capitan in May 1941.

“This is my favorite theater,” said Shahbaaz Shah, a 38-year-old animation director at Disney who hauled his two teenage sons—one of whom wants to get into filmmaking—from the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale to the El Capitan to see “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

When the lights came up, the scattered audience filled the auditorium with applause.

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