Moviegoers are back in Montana theaters, munching on salty, buttery popcorn, watching Meryl Streep strut her Donald Trump in “Don’t Look Up,” and giving at least a couple of arthouses their best months since coronavirus arrived in the Treasure State.
“Definitely, November and December were our two best months for film we’ve had since the pandemic,” said Benji Cosgrove, czar of operations at the Myrna Loy in Helena.
“It’s really that time of year,” said Mike Steinberg, head of the Roxy Theater in Missoula. “It’s called ‘Oscar bait,’ I suppose. It’s the kind of movies that do end up winning awards.”
In Missoula, the opening of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” packed a full theater last month, and in Helena more recently, films such as “Licorice Pizza” are helping to fill seats by bringing in a younger crowd less hesitant to gather.
In a newsletter earlier this month, the Roxy noted November was “far and away” the best month the theater had experienced since the pandemic, and Steinberg and Cosgrove both said audiences have continued their steady return to cinema in December.
The theater directors generally attribute the comeback to the films released this time of year, such as Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a western based on a Montana ranch, and “House of Gucci,” starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga. But they attribute their survival through the pandemic especially to their local donors and members, who boosted their bottom lines along with federal coronavirus aid.
“The people of Helena supporting the Myrna Loy above and beyond what they have in the past is really what saved us, even more than the COVID relief funds,” Cosgrove said. “If it weren’t for our donors and our members, it would have been pretty devastating.”
“There was just an outpouring of support from our community, donations, other private foundations, who gave us money in the middle of all of this,” Steinberg said.
The high quality films that open during Oscar season make a difference, as does having movies released to theaters ahead of streaming, said Krys Holmes of the Myrna Loy in an email.
“We still have a significant portion of our audience reluctant to come to movies in public because we can’t ask about vaccination status in Montana,” Holmes said. “Hopefully the situation will not get worse as the winter sets in!”
Theaters have been slowly reopening since the vaccine rollout started in the spring, and Steinberg said the reality is more and more people are getting comfortable with gathering. The Roxy spent a year without an operating budget, he said, but it held the Montana Film Festival this fall, and special programming is back, such as the showing of holiday classics like “Die Hard,” and he said cinema seems to be on an upward trajectory.
“I wouldn’t say it’s thriving, but it’s headed back in that direction at least,” Steinberg said.
To reach audiences earlier in the pandemic, theaters got creative in the ways they connected community to art. The Roxy held private movie parties, for example, and in the summer of 2020, it did some screenings at the ballpark, keeping groups of people socially distant at a time many felt hungry to get together. In partnership with the Missoula Paddleheads, they showed crowd-pleasers such as “Purple Rain.”
“People were literally dancing in the centerfield,” Steinberg said. “To me, that was a very dramatic version of, ‘God, we’ve needed this so much.”
Since vaccines have been available, many people are growing more comfortable with gathering indoors, he said, and theaters have shown it can be done safely. For example, he said the mask requirement in the Roxy lobby helps people feel more safe standing next to each other.
At the Myrna Loy, Cosgrove said the organization put in new heaters and air conditioning with filters that constantly pump new air into the theater. They limit capacity so people have a chance to sit away from others or even alone, and he said there’s a chance a couple on a date night might even have a private screening.
“It’s amazingly safe,” he said.
The contagious omicron variant is making its way around Montana, and some people have still been reluctant to go to the movies, but the new lineup of films is helping in Helena, Cosgrove said. That’s because some of the new films, such as “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley,” are drawing a younger audience.
“At the beginning of November, we were sky high in cases, and I think some of our older audience members were still a little bit hesitant about coming out to the movies,” Cosgrove said. “But once we got some of those movies that skew a little younger, they were just huge hits for us.”
At the Roxy, Steinberg said he’s excited to be back in the theater himself, but he knows not everyone is. He said a couple of his friends wanted to see “The Power of the Dog,” but they didn’t want to gather, so they waited two weeks and watched it on Netflix instead.
He said he understands that people may not feel ready yet, but he joked with his friends: “I said, ‘You owe the Roxy twenty dollars.”