Ridgecrest Cinemas to reopen Saturday

Local theater endures year of historic challenges

Ridgecrest Cinemas to reopen SaturdayBy REBECCA NEIPP

News Review Staff Writer

Ridgecrest Cinemas will reopen with modifications (like all returning businesses) on Saturday after weathering the most acute phase of COVID-19 restrictions.

But our hometown movie theater’s return to service has been a more obstacle-riddled path than most.

It started when our 6.4 earthquake hit last July 4. The movie theater was closed, and General Manager Kelly Walden was out of town. In her absence, her deputy Amanda Diaz made the call to send home employees and close it for inspection. Her decision was validated the following day when the 7.1-magnitude quake hit the following day — collapsing the ceiling of Theater 1 in the process.

Inspectors said that although the rest of the building was structurally sound, they ordered Walden to seal off Theater 1, Theater 2, and the main restrooms, snack bar and box office while repairs were made.

“Nothing outside of Theater 1 was compromised, but at the time the inspectors were worried about what would happen in a subsequent earthquake.” The cinema has continued to endure the thousands of aftershocks that followed, and repairs on the closed-off section began.

“We had originally hoped to be finished by June 1, in time to kick off our summer movies,” said Walden.

Then, concerns of the pandemic prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue precautions to “flatten the curve.” For about two weeks in March, theaters were directed to limit the capacity of their operations. Then they were ordered to close all together. Construction on Theater 1 ceased.

And although revenues dried up, many of the cinema’s ongoing expenses continued.

Walden and her staff tried to continue opportunities for the staff to maintain some level of employment, and for community outreach to continue. Curb-side popcorn pick up and drive-in movie nights gained popularity.

In some respects, said Walden, it was not much different than the shift in the cinema business model that began when she came aboard in 2017.

“It’s such a different world, now. Especially with all the other options people have for streaming movies from home,” she said. “Our mission was to make going to the movies fun. We found that by listening to what our customers were looking for, and offering them a meaningful experience, we were filling a valuable niche in our community.

“The bottom line is, if we can provide something that our customers need and want, we will be able to survive.”

Programs like $3 classic movie screenings, Toddler Takeover, party hosting and other promotions saw an increase in the volume at the cinema, and Walden was able to reinvest that revenue into the theater.

“Up until the earthquake, things were going really well,” said Walden. “But we really hadn’t even recovered from the earthquakes when COVID hit.”

Even with authorization to re-open, she noted that the cinemas will not be the same — at least at first.

State mandated increases for sanitization and distancing protocols required thousands of dollars of investments. The restrictions in volume mean that those costs must be absorbed in spite of reduced revenue.

And with a stalled film industry, theater operators are having to get creative about what titles they can show.

“This is where I think we were a little ahead of the curve,” said Walden. “Because our classic movies have been so popular with our customers, we felt like we were in a really good position to use this as an opportunity to find some fun, nostalgic films to share.”

Favorites like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Dark Night” and “Foot Loose” are among those coming back (see complete schedule at www.ridgecrestcinemas.com).

“Since ‘Trolls World Tour’ went straight to streaming, instead of opening in theaters, we are going to be screening that as well.”

Theater 1 will remain closed until repairs are completed, but Theater 2 and the other section of the original building will be re-opened by the time customers return.

“I do want to say that the community has been great during all of this,” said Walden.

“People have expressed very positive feedback while we were trying to find ways to continue serving. And we really look forward to welcoming our customers back.”

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Pictured: Amanda Diaz and Kelly Walden are working to ensure they can welcome customers back to Ridgecrest Cinemas tomorrow. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-06-19