Local theaters see influx of moviegoers thanks to summer blockbusters such as 'Top Gun'

Local residents are going back to the movies after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic to enjoy summer blockbusters such as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis.” But is the local area seeing a recovery that ensures success?

Theater owners say yes, but with some challenges.

Cinemark Theatres, which owns Century La Quinta and XD and Century at The River and XD in Rancho Mirage, has seen a steady rise of moviegoers returning to its theaters since last October.

Caitlin Piper, a company spokesperson, told The Desert Sun the company does not share returns for its locations, but the chain broke its own all-time records with advanced sales for “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”

“Cinemark has consistently believed that along with the control of COVID-19, as well as increased vaccinations and a stream of compelling new content, people would come back to theaters,” Piper said. “‘Top Gun: Maverick’ was the best Memorial Day weekend opening of all-time for the entire North American industry. We’ve seen a lot of strong progress.”

Mary Pickford is D’Place in Cathedral City has also seen an uptick in movie patrons since last year, which D’ Place Entertainment President Damon Rubio credits to better movie options, adding the company has done 80% of its totals in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rubio credits the 2019 success to “Avengers: Endgame,” which brought domestic box office returns totalling $858.4 million.

“I look at that and think, ‘Wow, May and June are back to normal,’” Rubio said.

Cristal Yanez of Cathedral City adds butter to the popcorn as her son Lennon Valdivia, 6, and daughter Angelina Valdivia, 5, look on before seeing "Minions: The Rise of Gru" at Mary Pickford is D’Place in Cathedral City, Calif., on June 30, 2022.

There’s a steady offering of upcoming summer blockbusters and anticipated films through July such as “Minions: The Rise Of Gru,” “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Where the Crawdads Sing.” But Rubio is concerned about August and September, which is when things traditionally cool down as kids head back to school and studios cut back on larger releases for smaller to mid-range films to sustain theaters, which fall is lacking.

“That’s the thing that scares me right now,” Rubio said. “We’re hoping production will ramp up and we’ll start to see some of those films slip in.”

Some of the announced fall releases are the superhero film “Samaritan” starring Sylvester Stallone, Javon Walton and Martin Starr; “Moonage Daydream,” an odyssey film set to the music of David Bowie; a film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1975 horror novel “Salem’s Lot”; and “Don’t Worry Darling” starring Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde, which was filmed in Palm Springs.

Two local theaters did close during the pandemic. Regency Theatres, with locations in Los Angeles, Orange County and Inland Empire recently shut down its only Coachella Valley location in Cathedral City. Indio's former Metro 8, which was operated by Regal Cinemas, closed in 2020.

Regency Theatres purchased the former Metro 8 theater last October for $1.6 million from the city's Successor Agency, the prior owner, and Indio Eight LLC. The company told The Desert Sun it plans to announce an opening date "in the coming weeks."

Sing-a-long musical screenings and more

Instead of Hollywood blockbusters, The Palm Springs Cultural Center attracts film lovers by showing films such as "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "Rushmore" and audience sing-a-long screenings of the musicals "Little Shop of Horrors," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Annie" with the Palm Springs Gay Men's Chorus.

More: ShortFest 2022: Desert Sun reporter's favorite short films from festival

This is the second year the Palm Springs Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization, has featured the sing-a-long screenings. Executive Director Michael Green said it's one of many summer programs this year.

"It's difficult through the summer and we try to supplement what we're doing the best we can to get folks to come in as often as we can," Green said.

Palm Springs Cultural Center executive director Michael Green stands inside the lobby of the historic Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs, Calif., on June 30, 2022.

The Palm Springs Cultural Center took a hit in January when the 2022 Palm Springs International Film Festival was canceled due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Green said the theater's numbers are not where they have been historically in terms of moviegoing and attributes that to the ongoing pandemic.

"Our audience tends to skew older and they're often a little bit more concerned about that kind of thing," Green said.

The theater also hosts a farmers' market, vintage film screenings, productions by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company and live music events. Green said the venue is also looking to expand music options with classical music performed by youth orchestras.

"We're really trying to diversify to serve the community as much as we can," Green said.

Popcorn is about to get expensive

Baby formula isn't the only item there's a shortage of, add Sriracha sauce, mustard and popcorn to the list. According to Mental Floss, farmers struggled to sell surplus popcorn in 2020 and now that moviegoers are returning to theaters, suppliers are scrambling to keep up with orders.

Rubio said D'Place Entertainment purchased all its popcorn for the year in advance through 2019 but didn't do that through the pandemic, adding the theater is stocked on popcorn but prices are 35% to 45% higher and there's looming shortages on other items.

"We sell these kit trays and I haven't been able to get kit trays for two months," Rubio said. "We're basically running out of all these little items that add up over time. If I don't have them, I can't sell them. If I can't sell them, I can't make the profit I need to stay open."

Piper said Cinemark is working with its popcorn supplier and doesn't anticipate running out of the beloved concession-stand staple, but the chain also faces the same challenges in attaining other items like popcorn bags.

"Our general managers have been very creative in working with each other, someone might have an excess of something and pass it along" Piper said. "Our food and beverage team has been working around the clock to find alternatives so we are able to offer our concessions to our moviegoers. Of course we will always ask for patience if there's a missing bag here or there."

Kyle Bobadilla, left, of Twentynine Palms and his friends wear yellow shirts to a showing of "Minions: The Rise of Gru" at Mary Pickford is D’Place in Cathedral City, Calif., on June 30, 2022.

Still, D'Place and Cinemark are celebrating the promising summer box office returns and this winter should be just as successful with releases such as "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," "Avatar: The Way of Water," the Whitney Houston biopic "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and "Shazam! Fury of the Gods."

"Now that we have movies that people want to see, people are coming back to the cinemas," Rubio said. "My rosy outlook is if we continue to get good product, I think we will continue to see a recover that brings us back to the normal kind of theater business."

Brian Blueskye covers arts and entertainment for the Desert Sun. He can be reached at brian.blueskye@desertsun.com or on Twitter at @bblueskye.

Moviegoers Leann Mullen, left, Oliver Boquin and Moses Boquin prepare to see "Minions: The Rise of Gru" at Mary Pickford is D’Place in Cathedral City, Calif., on June 30, 2022.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Local theaters see influx of moviegoers thanks to summer blockbusters