How one Arizona movie theater is attracting audiences after a pandemic downturn

By Greg Hahne
Published: Friday, September 1, 2023 - 4:45am
Updated: Friday, September 1, 2023 - 9:45am

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Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill in Tempe
Greg Hahne/KJZZ
Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill in Tempe.

Among a long list of things threatened by the pandemic, a familiar question had been asked: Is this the end of the movie theater?

As people had to socially distance, theaters had to shutter their doors while officials worked to figure out if there was a safe way to continue operating. Well, theaters haven’t disappeared as feared. And some summer blockbusters this year have shown that people are still willing to spend billions of dollars to go out to a movie. 

The question of whether movies could survive was rather familiar for the industry which has had a series of threats for decades. With the boom and spread of televisions in the 1950s and the rise of streaming in the late 2000s, the question was not new, but simply in a different form.

Though the pandemic has had lasting effects — and studios faced unexpected box office performances of several blockbusters. 

Films like "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" were overshadowed by another phenomenon: "Barbenheimer" — the nickname given to the simultaneous release of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" in late July.

Arizona Republic media critic Bill Goodykoontz says that double feature created something "Indiana Jones" couldn’t.

“Between 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer,' they got people excited about going back to the theater as an event," he said. 

"Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" posters
Greg Hahne/KJZZ
"Oppenheimer" and "Barbie" posters at Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill in Tempe.

For Goodykoontz, event is the key word here. The marketing teams jumped on the twin features to draw people to theaters. 

“Whoever's in charge of the marketing team for both Barbie and Oppenheimer, they deserve as big a raise as they get, because that's what really made things take off," Goodykoontz said. 

But Goodykoontz doesn’t believe this would be possible for just any movie, and capturing anything like it again would be incredibly difficult. What he says helped to make these stand out is that behind the buzz, they were well-made movies. Movies he doesn’t think that could be best enjoyed at home.

“I think that there is no question that seeing a movie like Barbie in the theater, packed with other people dressed in pink, It’s just a lot more fun than watching it on your couch," Goodykoontz said. 

But just as the pandemic threatened theaters, the whole film and TV industry is facing another set back. Strikes from the writers and screen actors guilds are posing  their own problems for the big screen. 

“To use a favorite COVID phrase, that affects the supply chain. Anything that makes it harder for people to go to see new movies is going to be bad for theaters," Goodykoontz said. 

Still there are other things that can be offered at movie theaters that don’t rely on new products coming from Hollywood. 

Audience before the "Rollerball" showing
Jill Ryan/KJZZ
Audience before the "Rollerball" showing in July 2023 at Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill.

Arizona movie theaters such as the Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill offer their own weekly events, highlighting movies from the past. 

“At our Tempe venue, we have like every Tuesday night we have ‘Cinematery’ which is hosted. It's a horror film every Tuesday night, 8:00 p.m.," said Andrea Canales, director of programming with Majestic who says those showings draw loyal fanbases. “That audience is probably 50% of the same people coming every week, which is really unheard of."

In another series cultivated there, it is showing a run of movies called "History of the Future" with the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination. 

The lineup includes movies such as "Robocop," "The Truman Show" and a 1975 James Caan film "Rollerball," which warned about the dangers of corporate control. 

The "Rollerball" showing was almost completely sold out. Bob Beard, the Center for Science and Imagination’s senior program manager, said  coming to a local theater is the best way to host these events.

“Local theaters like this, they live and breathe by this type of programming. Having the courage to bring sort of alternative programming and educational programming to a public audience who's curious for this, and taking it outside of ASU and outside of the campus walls, I think that's super important.” Beard said. 

Playing these old movies is still important for audience members like Steve Hoza. 

Bob Beard talking to audience members
Jill Ryan/KJZZ
Bob Beard with Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination talking to audience members after "Rollerball" showing in July 2023.

“It's nice to be able to see that these films that I enjoyed as a kid are now being exposed  in movie theaters like the Majestic to younger audiences, that they can see films that maybe are not being shown regularly on, like Netflix,: Hoza said. 

After Rollerball finished, audience members were chatting about highlights and breaking down their interpretations of the movie. 

To Hoza, these movie showings don’t just provide a fun night out. They are pieces of art that have something to say.

“Things that were being warned about in 1970 are now happening now, and if we had only listened to what these films were saying back then, we may not be in the position we are now," Hoza said. 

Beard says showing movies like "Rollerball" provides an experience you can’t get anywhere else.

“I think people are coming to have a communal experience, especially everything post pandemic like we're looking for ways to get back to normal. This is a way to get back to normal in a really fun way," he said.

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Bob Beard
Greg Hahne, KJZZ
Bob Beard with the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination.
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