From dressing up and going out to a theater to watch a movie on a Friday night, to watching it straight from your own living room, families are eager to finally get back to what they love: going to the movie theaters. After living the sheltered life for what felt like an eternity, El Pasoans have started to leave their homes and return to the cinema. To their surprise, theaters have been open for over a year now.
Cinemark 20 & XD, formally known as “Tinseltown,” has been open since July 31, 2020. It was the first of the Cinemark chain to reopen in El Paso, while other theaters opened up weeks, even months later. Cinemark 20 & XD used email, word of mouth and their box office marquee to advertise the reopening.
“It was quite successful, even if it took a while for most of our guests to learn we were open,” General Manager of Cinemark 20 & XD, Heath Poe said.
The theaters started out at 50% capacity, with two “buffer” seats between each party, and later transitioned to 75% capacity, by utilizing only one “buffer” seat. Now, back to 100% capacity with no “buffer” seats, Cinemark 20 & XD stated that the theater had taken a pledge to be “Cinema-Safe,” which means following federal, state and local requirements. Though, in El Paso, Texas, where local safety mandates combat state mandates, Cinemark 20 & XD encourages mask-wearing loosely.
What’s been happening since the pandemic began
Numerous new releases were pushed back from their original release date, and Cinemark 20 & XD showcased classic movies in its place.
“Initially we had Classic films for about 4-5 months in some capacity because there were not enough films,” Poe said.
Tickets were $5.00 for older films. Large tubs of popcorn were also $5.00. When new movies began to release, general admission and concession prices went back to “normal”, ranging from about $7-$11.
These films included The Polar Express, 42, and Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood, to name a few. Since reopening, the biggest success films for Cinemark 20 & XD has been Godzilla vs. Kong, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and F9, from the Fast and Furious Saga.
Cinemark introduced “Private Watch Parties” where guests can rent out an auditorium for up to 20 people. Cinemark created these for guests to feel safe at the theater.
“They allowed guests to come in and get the big screen experience in a controlled environment with a close group of friends or family,” Poe said. “It gave those concerned about COVID and being out a safe way to see a movie.”
In addition to keeping people wary of and away from the theater, the pandemic also took away free refills for large tubs. According to Poe, customers are still having a hard time adjusting to this new lifestyle.
“A few people have been upset but understand when we explain why,” Poe said.
Not only did Cinemark 20 & XD make changes to comply with local mandates set for COVID-19, but adjustments were made for guests to follow as well. Guests were encouraged to throw away their trash upon exiting the auditoriums, to create less contact for the ushers. Furthermore, masks are recommended when entering the theater, and theater-goers are allowed to take off masks when eating or drinking in the auditoriums. For a short time, only card transactions and other forms of contactless payment such as Apple Pay were permitted. Those who only had cash were directed to the box office to purchase a gift card, which could be used to pay for concessions. But, Cinemark 20 & XD has now gone back to accepting all forms of payment.
Though, that’s not all that has changed.
Streaming services such as Disney+ and HBO Max have given families the opportunity to watch new releases from the comfort of their living room. Though some guests say movies can only be experienced on the big screen, according to Poe, streaming still hurts box office sales. According to Poe, the biggest impact can be seen in the 2nd and 3rd week.
Employees also experienced a change of practices. Cinemark 20 & XD team-members were provided with black face masks, and sanitation wipes were posted in the hallways and made readily available for guests.
Although Cinemark was able to continue with production, not all employees were able to return to their jobs. Previous employees of Cinemark 20 & XD were required to reapply and were put in phases that determined their return. Unfortunately, only phase one employees and a few from the other phases returned. The rest were let go.
“I was promised that there would be a job to return to,” Marinah Ruiz, a former Assistant Manager of Cinemark 20 & XD said.
Ruiz is currently a junior at the University of Texas at El Paso and though she was able to find a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch at a local mall, the pay wasn’t the same as her position at Cinemark as a manager and eventually, the store closed and again, she found herself without a job. Since, Ruiz started a small eyelash extension business as her source of income.
Cinemark 20 & XD started out with 24 managers and 115 employees before the shutdown. According to Poe, they currently have 18 managers and 84 employees.
“Being laid off really messed with my character..” Nicolas Bowman,a student at the University of Texas at El Paso, said. “Not having a job, laid off made me question (my character) and also just made me feel intolerable after having to leave my apartment and live with my dad.”
Bowman had been a manager for almost a year before being laid off.
“The only financial stability I could get was through unemployment benefits, which is the only reason I was able to go to another semester,” Bowman said.
Now, Bowman works as an assistant manager at Cinemark Cielo Vista Mall 14 and XD.
Story by Brianne Williams
Photography by Juan Pablo De Anda