FARGO — The summer blockbuster is a high point on the calendar for the film industry, but the holiday season really is the most wonderful time of the year for the movie business.
So when Warner Bros. announced last week that it plans to release its movies in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max simultaneously, some in the local film community saw the change as a Grinch move.
“I was very concerned when I saw this. I think this could have a huge impact on our industry,” says Emily Beck, executive director of the Fargo Theatre. “I’m hoping they’ll change their minds.”
While Warner Bros. movies typically go to bigger, mainstream theaters like Century Cinema and West Acres Cinema, and not the Fargo, Beck is concerned that this will create a trend of more films going directly to streaming services.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a number of big films that would have opened in theaters have been pushed online.
The Warner Bros. announcement means its biggest upcoming title, “Wonder Woman 1984,” will open on silver screens and smaller screens alike on Christmas Day.
While theaters losing the exclusivity of new releases may be worrisome for some, to others, having a big movie open on Christmas Day is an anticipated gift. West Acres Cinema, which had been closed since October due to the limited amount of movies available, will reopen on Dec. 18 in anticipation of a relatively busy holiday season.
“I’m running my tail off getting ready to reopen,” says Rick Solarski, manager of West Acres Cinema.
West Acres and Century Cinemas are both owned by Marcus Theatres and both will be playing “Wonder Woman 1984.”
A representative for Marcus Theatres did not respond when asked for a reaction to the Warner Bros. announcement.
Earlier this week, the company announced it had sold the Safari Cinema in Moorhead to a church.
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Solarski says his biggest item on his to-do list is to find a staff, especially people willing to work the holidays, including what he hopes will be a relatively busy Christmas Day. He said most of the staff of about 20 wanted to come back to work.
Both theaters will be open daily from Dec. 25 through Jan. 3, then will return to a limited schedule, open Friday through Sundays and Tuesdays.
As of Tuesday, Dec. 8, “Wonder Woman 1984” tickets were the only ones available for purchase.
Solarski says the theaters will operate at 25 percent capacity, meaning the Ultrascreens will only seat 50.
“It makes for a comfortable experience for the guests,” Solarski says, adding that a theater may actually feel safer than a restaurant or bar. “When you go out to eat or for a drink, people are talking loudly. In a theater, you get in trouble for talking.”
He says masks can be removed when ticketholders are seated so they can still partake in popcorn and soda. Solarski says the full array of concessions are available and can be ordered ahead of time to eliminate waiting in lines.
Beck says the Fargo Theatre has no immediate plans for reopening for the first time since the March lockdown.
“We’re waiting for the right combination of safer conditions and product availability,” she says.
While some major Hollywood films have still progressed during the pandemic, smaller-budget ones that would typically play the Fargo have been stalled.
She says she and her staff are keeping busy with fundraising, maintenance and prepping for the Fargo Film Festival, the biggest event of the year for the organization. Submissions are in and judges are now making selections for the event, which starts March 16.
Organizers will decide in January whether the event will be in-person, virtual or a combination of both, though Beck says a virtual fest is “most likely.” Still, she says there would be more interactive options, such as panel discussions with filmmakers in which people could ask questions from home or online workshops.
“People are missing that interactive element,” she says.
Typically, December is the theater's busiest month of the year, with at least one event a day.
“The revenue we bring in in December keeps us afloat during those quieter months like January and February,” Beck explains, adding that the organization is doing “OK” thanks to its fundraising efforts.
Still, she’s looking forward to opening the doors again, whenever that will be.
“We can’t wait to get people back into the theater,” she says. “The Fargo isn’t the same without people here.”