‘Tenet’: How I Drove Four Hours To The Nearest AMC Theatre Open In California & Returned To The Movies During The Pandemic

·9 min read

When I was a kid growing up in Brattleboro, VT, I had to wait months for a big Hollywood movie to come to town.

One of the big year-end holiday movies of 1980 was Paramount’s Robin Williams pic Popeye, but it didn’t come to my town’s Art-Deco historical landmark theater, the Latchis until Easter weekend.

This weekend, the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, which caters to a population of 12K, had Warner Bros.’ Christopher Nolan’s Tenet first, before Hollywood, the movie capital of the world. Such was the nature of big Hollywood films of the 1970s and early 1980s: They’d open NYC, LA and big city markets, and gradually make their way to the sticks. Now, we’re living in an era where that entire distribution process is being completely rewritten by the pandemic.

With Los Angeles’ cinemas still closed due to the pandemic with no immediate sign of re-opening (insiders hope that it’s by the end of the month), there was no way I was going to wait until Easter (again) to see Tenet. And so in a fit of sheer audaciousness at a time when we should all still be staying at home since there’s not a vaccine, I told my wife and two teenage boys that we were headed to the nearest place to see Tenet this weekend where theaters opened: San Diego, CA.

During the trip down on Friday night, I kept thinking this was such a crazy thing to do, quite frankly on the level of Clark Griswold or Gomez Addams. My wife opted to skip 3-hours of Nolan’s Byzantine hijinks, however the boys, were game-on. Since mid-March, we had essentially stayed at our home, 30 minutes north of Los Angles, with an occasional trip to Santa Monica Seafood during the pandemic.

It wasn’t attending a movie theater that scared me so much, as going to a whole other city all-together, the Comic-Con mecca of San Diego on a Labor Day weekend. Given the last minute nature of the trip, San Diego enclaves, La Jolla and Carlsbad, both had sold-out hotels, but oddly enough, the Gas Lamp district did not. Arriving into the city on Friday night, it was party central in action, a vibe that only heightened with booming music into Saturday. Restaurants were open for dine-in. This part of California was alive during the quarantine.

Aside from my want-to-see of Tenet, my other intent was to see what moviegoing was like at the No. 1 exhibitor in the world, AMC, which had implemented several safety protocols, to the extent of being sponsored by Clorox. In no way, did I want to indulge you with the same old-same old Tenet coverage of ‘Hey, this was the first movie I’ve seen since Invisible Man back in February and here’s what it felt like to wear a face mask for three hours and use a paperless ticket.’

I chose, largely based on hotel availability at the last minute during the holiday weekend, to see Tenet at San Diego’s AMC Fashion Valley mall, an upscale outdoor shopping area akin to the Century City, CA mall with shops like Cartier, Chanel, Fendi, Gucci, etc. The cinema did not have Imax, but was an 18-plex with its largest auditorium being 161 seats, and the others ranging in size from ~80-100+ seats. As many distribution and exhibition sources said for months, Warners would get the pick of all screens as they’re the one big gun out there, and Tenet was booked on nine of those 18 screens. Three had Disney’s New Mutants, the other three Solstice Studios’ Unhinged, and the other three screens had Peninsula, Words on Bathroom Walls, and The Personal History of David Copperfield. The Chadwick Boseman movie 42 was the only catalog title in rotation. So, a multiplex with all new product during the pandemic; that’s great. In total, Tenet was showing 19 times during the course of the day with a showtime essentially every half hour between 1pm and 10pm.

While some AMC locations, such as in Arizona, had ten days to open after receiving the local-greenlight, AMC Fashion Valley had four days after San Diego gave the go-ahead. Still, it’s a been a project long in the works: Key staff had returned as early as late June to ensure that all working parts of the theater, from projectors to sinks, were working.

Foot traffic wise, the outside mall was packed, and the multiplex was receiving some of that spillover as families and groups of people made their way to the cinema for a 5pm or 6pm showtime, taking refuge from the humid 93-degree weather outside. The staff was upbeat, and happy to be back at work as Tenet showtimes were selling out, which nowadays meant, the film was hitting its 25% auditorium capacity limits.

My auditorium was close to 25% filled with around 21 in an 87-seater. The make-up of the crowd was largely over 25, an even split between men and women, with people coming in groups –either groups of four, families, or couples. There was only one moviegoer who came alone, going against the statistics that only single men would be the only types of moviegoers to brave their way back to the cinema during the pandemic. Everyone stayed for the pic’s entire, largely confusing action; no one left.

Still, while watching the film, I kept thinking about what a challenge it is to open a non-star driven 2 1/2 hour movie like Tenet, and during Labor Day weekend, one of the slowest moviegoing periods of the year. It’s a time when studios have traditionally refused to open any wide releases. True, we haven’t had a summer blockbuster season, but still, it’s Labor Day weekend, and many are in that last weekend of vacation hurrah mindset. Warners in recent years created a blockbuster period on the calendar in the post Labor Day weekend with its It franchise and The Nun. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and things have changed, and we’re no longer in the 3-day opening weekend mindset. Warners opted to go with a long-lead-11-day opening domestic for Tenet, starting with international which was two-thirds of the pic’s potential B.O. The movie’s outcome will be written over its long game, worldwide, not in the first go-round. This weekend, for Tenet, it’s not domestic-leading story.

The approximate 20 minute preshow had plenty of ‘Welcome Back’ to the movie clips, including one from Noovie spokeswoman Maria Menounos, an in-memoriam clip of Boseman, and trailers for Broken Hearts Gallery, Let Him Go, Death on the Nile, Greenland, and Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984, Judas and the Black Messiah. There was also a novel teaser for Dune, advertising that the trailer would drop on Sept. 9 (yet still revealing a lot of the film). There was also a trailer for Black Widow, a hopeful sign that Disney would send the movie to cinemas on Nov. 6, not Disney+, like they did with Mulan this past weekend.

But seriously how safe did it fell being back at the cinema?

Very safe, and much safer than my Gas Lamp hotel which would drew crowds from the outside at night, as they waited in line to get up to the rooftop bar. AMC is pulling out all the stops to get their business back on line, and there’s zero hazards in place. Staff and moviegoers are all wearing masks. When you’re inside the theater, you can take down your mask, and eat your concessions, but it should be placed on your face when you’re not eating. There are signs enforcing mask wearing throughout the multiplex.

Condiment and butter stations are closed, now dispensed separately in packets or capped cups. Plexiglas windows are up around ticket and concession counters. A reduced priced concession menu of Popcorn, soda, nachos, hot dogs and bagged candy is in place. Soda out of the multi-flavored Coke machines is dispensed separately by gloved concession workers. With open-bucket popcorn, and the masked and gloved workers dispensing it, I didn’t feel like my health was in jeopardy. Anti-bacterial wipe stations, and hand sanitizer stations are near the entrance of every auditorium and throughout the lobby.

In addition to a complete clean-up in between showtimes, the big plus at AMC is their use of electrostatic cleaners, which shoots positive particles which wrap around surfaces (which are negatively charged). The process reaches impossible corners, crevices, backsides, and other hard-to-reach places often missed during a general cleaning. The AMC team not only use the sprayer on seats and armrests, but on all the railings as well. Take a look:

Speaking with moviegoers outside the theaters, one 55-year old guy was thrilled to be back. It was his second day at the AMC Fashion Valley, having watched Tenet yesterday and Unhinged, which he loved last night. A group of four college kids, on dates, really enjoyed Tenet, were excited to be back at the movies, but wanted to see the the Nolan title again “with English subtitles” on, as the time-travel movie is that complex.

Everyone was local, I was the only crazy guy from LA to make the trip to see Tenet that night at the cinema. What did I think?

Growing up, my parents always reminisced about the time they drove two hours to Boston, Mass. to see 1965’s The Sound of Music. But there was more in store for them that weekend: They went to a fundraiser dinner for then-Senator Ted Kennedy, and actually got to meet him. It was a big deal.

Well, I didn’t meet any Kennedys over the weekend, but I’m happy to say that Tenet was entertaining enough to make-up for the 4-hour, traffic laden trip from Los Angeles to San Diego.

For my sons, Inception‘s complex storytelling was basic math, while Tenet‘s was more along the lines of calculus; more than enough for us to talk about on a three-hour ride home.

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