“Hopefully people will come back,” says Sarah Nicholson, executive director of the Sierra Community Theatre, which reopened Friday after more than two months. Like all theaters in Iowa, the Sierra had to close March 17 on order of Gov. Kim Reynolds because of COVID-19. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD PHOTOSThe day the Sierra was ordered to close by the state, Nicholson quickly changed the marquee.Social distancing guidelines are posted outside the Sierra Community Theatre, which is trying to lure moviegoers back with reduced admission prices. ANDREW McGINN | JEFFERSON HERALD


Sierra Theatre adapting to the ‘new normal’



At this exact moment, you have to admit that a marathon of “Jurassic Park” movies doesn’t sound half-bad.

“Everybody likes to see a dinosaur eating humans,” said Sarah Nicholson, executive director of the Sierra Community Theatre, which is showing as many of the “Jurassic” films that it can this week and next.

After more than two months of state-ordered closure in hopes of mitigating COVID-19, the nonprofit local theater reopened Friday night to a world shaken by a pandemic and stirred by civil unrest in many cities.

For anyone seeking a momentary escape, the Sierra is suddenly an essential business.

“I like movies because, for two hours, you can escape,” Nicholson said. “I can’t think of a better reason to escape right now.”

But while the Sierra can offer that temporary escape from reality, the theater is just lucky to have something to escape to.

In an April 22 statement on states reopening earlier than recommended by health officials, the National Association of Theatre Owners, the trade organization representing exhibitors, cautioned that new, wide-release movies are unlikely to be available until a majority of the nation’s markets are open.

Until that happens, the Sierra will be forced to think creatively about what it can show.

“I hate the term ‘new normal,’ but that’s what we kind of have to find,” Nicholson said. “Until then, we’ll have some unique programming.”

In its first week back, the Sierra has shown the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “E.T.” The “Jurassic Park” franchise is up next.

All, Nicholson noted, are Universal Pictures films, the studio that also happened to provoke the ire of the world’s largest theater chain during the pandemic.

Back on April 10, with theaters nationwide darkened by COVID-19, Universal made the decision to release the animated “Trolls World Tour” as a video-on-demand rental for $20 to families stuck at home.

The reported grosses — $95 million in three weeks — caused the studio to announce that, even when theaters do reopen, it would be releasing all of its movies that way in conjunction with their theatrical release.

That drew a stinging rebuke from AMC Theatres in late April, which announced it would no longer play Universal movies on any of its screens (8,043 in the U.S. and Canada alone).

NATO, the theater trade organization, released a statement of its own that, with so many people at home, the success of “Trolls World Tour” doesn’t indicate a shift in consumer preferences away from movie theaters.

Nicholson, admittedly, is now conflicted.

On one hand, she’s wary of Universal’s future plans. On the other, the studio stepped up with good prices on its catalog of films.

“They did offer us the best option for reopening,” Nicholson said. “I can’t get new films even if I want.”

It doesn’t appear that the first new, wide-release movie will be available until the Aug. 14 release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” according to Nicholson.

She originally had hoped to pick up right where the Sierra left off, with “The Call of the Wild.” It was the movie that would have opened locally the week in mid-March that Gov. Kim Reynolds closed the state’s theaters.

However, when Nicholson contacted the film’s distributor — Disney — the answer was a firm No.

Disney, she said, isn’t promoting any theatrical release at this time.

“When you run a theater, you know the plans you make don’t mean anything,” Nicholson said.

The local theater was buoyed during the closure by three successful popcorn nights, where customers could take turns buying concessions to go.

In order to entice people back to the theater, admission prices have been cut in half, to $3 per person.

There are also social distancing guidelines in place. Only 50 people will be allowed in, and patrons are asked to leave four seats between themselves. The theater normally can seat 231 people.

Nicholson said the first shows back drew about 20 people each night.

“We expected it would be a little slow opening,” she said.

Nevertheless, the Sierra’s marquee now shines more like a beacon in the night than ever before.

“It will give us a small sense of normalcy in a very abnormal time,” Nicholson said. “It’s important to give people that little bit of regular back.”

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