Coachella Valley cinephiles, including many in Palm Springs, are feeling the effects of decisions made by big and small movie houses made in part to the lingering impact of the pandemic.
The Tristone Palm Desert 10 Cinemas at the Shops at Palm Desert mall closed on Sunday, making it the third area movie theater to fold since the pandemic began. In addition, the Palm Springs Cultural Center made the difficult decision late last year to no longer show first-run movies.
The blows to the local movie scene did not go unnoticed.
“It’s devastating,” said Bruce McFarlane, a Palm Springs resident for the past decade. “Especially because this is a city that hosts a huge international film festival.”
McFarlane said last week he sees “pretty much everything” the Cultural Center has to offer on its Camelot Theatres screens. So, when he noticed their showtimes stopped updating after the film festival, he decided to stop by in person. “It was locked,” explained McFarlane, and a representative from the theater told him via email that they won’t be showing any new first run films for the foreseeable future.
Michael Green, executive director of the Cultural Center, said the decision did not come lightly. With ticket sales falling roughly 70% since the pandemic began, the nonprofit’s board of directors made the difficult decision in November to stop running first run movies and close the facility during the day.
Green said the result of similar decisions theater operators were forced to make during the pandemic is that many independent and foreign films likely won’t have any distribution in the Coachella Valley. At the Cultural center, though, it helps keep the doors open for other offerings.
“We are fortunate because we began diversifying our offerings long before Covid,” Green explained. The theater has two of its own film festivals – the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival and Cinema Diverse: The Palm Springs LGBTQ+ Film Festival – in addition to the weekend Certified Farmers’ Market program, which started in 2008.
In 2019, the theater began hosting live theater and live music. The latter now makes up a large part of the current programming. Theater space can also be rented out to local and national promoters and local filmmakers. It has even hosted visual artists.
Still, McFarlane can’t hide his disappointment.
“One of the reasons I moved here was that there were so many movie theaters, both independent and otherwise, within the immediate area,” he said.
His local options have been dwindling in recent years, but it’s a nationwide issue. A shuttering of movie theaters has been blamed on a host of issues: shorter box office windows, streaming services offering more media, and the poor performances of any movie not centering on a superhero.
“Small theaters have struggled to get content from the studios for years,” said Green. “Studios prefer to give their major releases to the large chain theater companies.” And then there was Covid, which contributed to the decline because people didn’t want to risk exposure.
Theater closures in the valley during the pandemic included the May 2022 closing of the Cathedral City 10, run by Regency Theaters, and the closing of the Metro 8 in Indio, operated by Regal Cinemas, which closed its doors in March 2020.
McFarlane says he can still see some independent movies here, but often only those with Oscar buzz, and only on a limited schedule. He looks forward to the slate of repertory films coming to the Cultural Center and is looking into joining the Desert Film Society, which screens foreign and independent films a few times a month at the Cultural Center.
Green assured him and others there will continue to be more to look forward to at the Cultural Center outside of films. Three new plays are opening this month, live music happens five nights a week, and community programs and special events continue to fill the calendar. “Our schedule is really full,” Green assured local fans of live entertainment.
For film fans, however, “The movie theater industry is facing challenges from all sides,” said Green. He foresees a future where the only theaters left will be the large national chains.
In Palm Springs and elsewhere in the valley where retires settle, there are compounding issues. Older moviegoers are more likely to see dramas and indie movies, and that demographic has been slowest to return to in-person movie viewing. That’s why, some analysts say, more of those movies have been released exclusively on streaming sites. Audiences now seem to be only turning out only for the biggest “event” movies like superhero epics or franchise fare.
Pre-pandemic, movies would play exclusively in theaters for 75 to 90 days before heading to streaming and DVDs. During the pandemic, studios kept shortening that window until they eventually released massive blockbusters like “Dune” and “Wonder Woman 1984” on streaming services the same day as they came out in theaters.
With audiences trickling back in, most studios have expanded their theatrical window, but only to 45 days. Audiences accustomed to watching a movie in the comfort of their own home could be more likely to wait a month and a half for a new film to start streaming than they would have pre-pandemic.
Theaters aren’t just competing with new movie releases on streaming services. They compete with a seemingly endless parade of new shows debuting each week on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. In 2016, Netflix Originals and Exclusives accounted for 5% of the service’s catalog in the U.S. By early 2022, Originals and Exclusives made up more than 50% of the library.
If that wasn’t enough to worry about, theaters also have to win back Gen Z, who tend to spend more of their day gaming or watching user-generated short-form content on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.
The Cultural Center has been able to innovate and serve the cultural appetite of many different valley communities through live theater, music, and art. Even without the latest films, the historic theater is, at its core, a movie theater.
It has one of the largest movie screens in the valley and is one of the few theaters that can still screen movies in 70 millimeter and 35 millimeter. In May 2022, the theater hosted the Secret Movie Club Palm Springs 70mm Getaway, where in one weekend, they screened 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, and West Side Story (1961) all in their original 70mm format.
That summer, the theater hosted director retrospectives featuring the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. October focused on Tim Burton, and the theater is currently in the middle of a Terry Gilliam retrospective.
These raucous screenings are filled with true movie fans, many of whom dress in costume, who come to see the throwback films on the big screen. Also in the audience, crowds of people who always meant to see these classics but never got around to it and chose to experience West Side Story for the first time on the big screen.
Green knows that the experience of seeing a film in a theater is something precious that can never be replicated at home, “Seeing a film in a theater like our Historic Camelot Theatre is seeing the film the way the filmmakers intended,” he said.
Thousands of people pore over every detail of these films, fine-tuning the audio, color, and editing so it can be appreciated on the biggest screen possible with the best sound possible. “[I]t is really immersive in a way that home theaters or television viewing is not,” Green said.
McFarlane agrees. For him, going to the movies is an experience, while watching a movie at home is just a mundane exercise.
“It’s a heightened experience,” he said. “You’re not getting easily distracted by a device at home or your pets.”