Movie screens remain empty in Alachua County

Cineworld announced on Oct. 5th that more than 500 Regal Cinema screens across the United States would temporarily close.

Three days later, it happened, and all three movie venues in Gainesville turned their projectors off, shut down concession counters and stripped the giant marquees of movie titles.

But the Regal Royal Park Stadium 16 and Regal Butler Town Center didn’t go without a statement. Both theaters displayed a message out front that was recently removed. “New York Theaters closed by Gov. If No New York, no big movies, no big screen. No Popcorn here. Temporarily closed,” the marquees read.

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Months before, on March 14th, the locally owned Priest Theatre in High Springs announced that it was closing. Families flocked to the theater on weekends to enjoy discounted ($5) ticket prices and affordable snacks.

“We have decided to take precautionary action to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” the theater announced via Facebook.

“All ticket sales after 3/14/2020 have been closed and will be reopened when appropriate to do so. Check back for more updates. We thank you all for being amazing customers and hope that you all stay healthy during this time.”

The Priest Theatre has permanently closed, including shutting down its website and disconnecting the phone.

Mainstreet Daily News checked in with local restaurant and business owners in the vicinity of the now closed movie theaters. They agree that while it is hard to tell the impact that empty theaters have had on their customer base, the lack of “dinner and a movie” date nights most likely has played a role in the slowdown of customers.

In the months following the brick and mortar movie theater shutdowns, efforts were made to bring back the movie experience to Gainesville via the drive-in experience which allowed for social distancing.

On June 5th, Celebration Pointe along with Gift Certificates and More and Regal Celebration Pointe 10 & RPX hosted a movie event in the north parking lot. “Come see the lovable toys from Toy Story 4!,” they announced. The Texas Roadhouse and MidiCi restaurants offered a limited menu and a concession menu included popcorn, candy and drinks.

On June 27th they offered a second round of big screen entertainment by airing “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”

From June 18-21, Pat Lavery, owner of Glory Days Presents! and the High Dive in Gainesville partnered with the Drive In Dudes from Pensacola to host movies in the parking lot of the Oaks Mall. Old favorites such as “Shrek,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Goonies” played on inflated screens. The pop-up movie events attracted moviegoers from other counties as well as locals. They showed up in pickup trucks and cars that popped their hatchback open for the kids to watch.

All the while, the next closest movie venue for Alachua County residents to travel to—the Ocala Drive-In—remained open for business and drew hundreds of cars from hours away.

It’s the Ocala Drive-In, located 40 miles from Gainesville, that has kept the big screen experience going without closing during the pandemic.

According to Owner John Watzke, who said his family has been in the drive-in business since 1913 when his grandfather worked in them, he’s doing his best to keep the movies coming.

But it’s becoming a challenge, he said.

On Monday, Watzke was working on booking movies for the next week.

“I’m having a hard time trying to find movies right now,” he said. “Nothing is being released except for independent movie companies and they are not family friendly,” he said.

John Watzke

The drive-in has two screens to choose from and ticket prices are $6 adults, $3 for children ages 6 to 12 and children 5 and under get in free.

Gates open at 6 p.m. and double feature movies play starting at 7 p.m. Jan. 1-7 “Wonder Woman 84” and “Justice League” are showing on screen 1. “News of the World” and “Monster Hunter” are showing on screen 2.

Watzke said the money collected for ticket sales barely covers the amount charged by the movie company for airing the films.

“It is the sales of the concession that supports the drive-in,” he said. “Without the concession sales, we would have to be like every other theatre and charge a much higher price, give you one movie and still not allow outside food the same as they do.”

For more information about the Ocala Drive-in, view the website here. They are open seven nights a week, rain or shine.

The next closest big screen movie experiences listed online are AMC Orange Park 24 in Orange Park (60 miles from Gainesville), and Cinemark Durbin Park and XD in St. Johns (75 miles from Gainesville).

Mainstreet Daily News has requested an update from Regal Cinemas on any future plans to reopen local theaters from the CEO/vice president of communications of Regal and will update the story if he responds. 

According to Leslie Payne, director of marketing at Celebration Pointe, movies began again in December. “We have started hosting Sunday movie matinees on The Green in the Promenade with headsets for listening,” she said. “It kicked off in December, and we are looking at offering a regular schedule.”

Regal Cinemas 10

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