Coachella Valley Independent

Indy Digest: Sept. 6, 2021

I first met Damon Rubio a little more than four years ago, during the summer of 2017—and I was instantly impressed.

At the time, he was in his first full year of running the Mary Pickford Theatre in downtown Cathedral City via his new company, D’Place Entertainment. After spending 15 years with UltraStar Cinemas, he’d struck out on his own by taking over the Pickford when the city’s lease with UltraStar ended in 2016.

“I had to decide: Did I want to work for someone else, or take the plunge and do something for myself?” he told me.

Rubio said he planned on expanding his D’Place Entertainment beyond Cathedral City—and in the years since, he’s done just that: In addition to the Pickford, Rubio now has theaters in Mammoth Lakes, Barstow, Banning and Bonsall.

All was well with his growing California theater empire when COVID-19 arrived—devastating the movie business. In California, theaters were closed off and on (with far more time spent closed than open) for more than a year—and when they did reopen, not only did they face a reticent public; they had few compelling films to show to the customers that did go to the movies, as studios delayed releases or sent films straight to streaming services.

Today, the outlook for movie theaters remains less than great. On one hand, studios are releasing some big films, finally—such as Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this Labor Day weekend. (Read our review below.) On the other hand, the Delta variant is causing some potential theater-goers to decide to stay at home; as a result, studios continue to push back some film releases: Just last week, Paramount announced it was delaying the release of Top Gun: Maverick from Nov. 19 to Memorial Day weekend 2022.

As the big Labor Day weekend arrived, I spoke to Rubio about the state of the movie biz, how the Mary Pickford is doing compared to its big-chain competition, and more.

So … how are things in the movie business?

The movie business is very weird at this moment. You have this great backlog of wonderful films that are just waiting to be seen, but then you’ve got all the challenges that come with the pandemic and with our industry in general—with people not knowing what’s safe, and what’s convenient. And the studios—are they at the comfort level of releasing a film that they’ve invested millions and millions of dollars on? We’re battered from every angle. Our vendors, our public, our government, everything. It all is piling on us in the movie industry, that’s for sure.

How is business so far here in the desert?

We are down significantly. That’s not to say that we’re not extremely happy to be open. As an industry, and especially me, we bitched and complained when I was closed. And, of course, now I’m going to bitch and complain when I’m open. That said, I’d rather be open and employing my people, and serving the folks who are comfortable coming to the theater, than be shut down. That’s a huge plus—but, yeah, we are significantly off from where we should be. … I will give you an example of one of our other locations (not the Mary Pickford). From March 2019 until August 2019, that location had done $1.4 million. This year, it had done $140,000 at the box office.

Oh, wow. That’s 10% of normal.

That is the same kind of ratio we’re seeing at theaters all throughout my chain and all throughout my competitors’ chains. It’s mind-blowingly crazy.

Is the Pickford doing better or worse than others?

The Pickford is holding its own in the marketplace, so I wouldn’t say we’re doing worse than anyone else. When you compare it to where it is against the other theaters, it’s right where it should be—everyone is doing equally bad. But that said, I’m happy that at the moment at the Pickford, we are making enough money to pay the electric bill, pay the employees and keep the doors open, so that is a plus.

Let’s go back a little bit. What kind of emergency plans, contingency plans, worst-case scenario plans, did you have going into 2020? Did you have anything like a pandemic even on your radar screen?

No. That’s the crazy thing—and, boy, does it teach you a lesson in humility. The movie business has been around, and we’ve seen a lot of things go on in the economy, and we always jump up and down and go, “Gosh, isn’t it nice? We seem to be recession-proof. We seem to be bulletproof. There’s nothing that can stop the movies. What a great business to be in.” And then sure enough, here comes the one thing none of us ever thought would happen. Outside of outright civil war, what’s going to stop people from going out to a movie? What’s going to stop them from going to a restaurant? So, yeah. That hit us from left field.

In America, we had obviously seen the threats of viruses and had scares before, with the bird flu and some of the other things that came through, but we always heard about it happening in China, and Japan, and Asia—and it never really reached our shores. So when we first started hearing about this, we were kind of like, “OK, yeah. It’s a thing that’s going on that’s terrible. How does it affect us?” … Even when there was the huge scare with Ebola, yeah, people knew about it; people were concerned, but no one stopped coming to movies. … I don’t think any of us had ever experienced anything like this or even thought it was in the realm of possibility, which is obviously naive, but that’s how it was.

I know that COVID has proven to be very tricky, and it’s hard to predict the future, but do you have any sense for what the future’s going to bring? Are you optimistic? Are you worried? Is it a combination of both?

I am optimistic. Having seen some of the movies coming out—these are great films that people are really, really, really going to enjoy, and that is always kind of the driving force. … You give people a mediocre film that doesn’t really look all that exciting, and they’re like, “You know what? It’s not worth getting off my couch and possibly dying for.” But then you roll out something like a Marvel film or even Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and you know what? That risk goes out the back door, and people are like, “You know what? I want to see that in the theater and I want to experience that,” and they go out, and they have a great time. We need good product that really, really captures (an audience’s) imagination and gives them a reason to go out. I think we have that coming. So in that sense, I’m optimistic.

All the Warner Bros. stuff is going to HBO Max at the same time as theaters, and Disney is putting a lot of its stuff simultaneously on Disney+. How is that affecting things?

Oh, it’s having an impact for sure. But … the pandemic has been an accelerant to that process. Everyone knew it was coming—and our company, specifically, our business plan has never been concerned about streaming and those kinds of services, because our concept was: We’re providing an experience. So provided I can get content, if a consumer has a choice between seeing that stuff at home or seeing it out in a great experience with recliners, and beer and wine, and all the things that the Mary Pickford and our other locations provide, I’m confident that I can compete against those things. Where it becomes problematic is when there are risk factors; that makes it hard to compete, because … it’s about what’s perceived as safe and what’s perceived as not safe: “Well, I can watch Godzilla at home for free, or I can go out and pay for it in a risky environment.” That’s not a level playing field. So long-term, once it becomes a level playing field, the studios might show it for a premium on their service, and I can still show it in a great experience at my place. I’m not worried about that. But right now? Yes, it is tricky to navigate.

Talk about the precautions you’re taking at your theaters.

First off, our staff has remained masked up, not only for their safety, but also for the comfort of our guests. Obviously, we’ve continued to do our higher cleaning protocols, and we offer all the sanitation stations and all that kind of stuff. Sadly—and not of our own choice—there are not a lot of other people around, so it is a safe environment to come in. There’s a high percentage you’ll probably have the theater to yourself. But even when more people are showing up, there’s still plenty of room in the auditoriums. … At the Mary Pickford, we’ve spent a lot of money when we were closed going through and making sure all of our air filtration systems were upgraded and cleaned out. … And on top of that, there is no movie theater that I know of that has a reported case of COVID transmission as a hotspot—pretty much in the world. It really comes down to the volume of air and space in theaters—even though it’s an enclosed space, it’s not like a church where people are singing and talking, and viruses getting spread throughout the air. It’s not like a restaurant where people are sitting in close proximity in crowded areas, usually in low ceiling areas, where there’s not a lot of space and air. Here, we have everyone pointing in the same direction. Everyone’s pretty much silent. They may be snacking on some popcorn. Everyone’s spaced out. You have a huge volume of air and constant filtration going on in an auditorium. So, really—you can’t say it’s as safe as being outside, but when you compare it to other indoor venues, it is a safe environment.

—Jimmy Boegle

From the Independent

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A Different Kind of Marvel Movie: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Is a Fun Adventure Fantasy That Should Be Watched on the Big Screen

By Bob Grimm

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is solid Marvel fun; this is an experience well worth your time at a safe theater.

More News

• Just a few quick news links coming out of the holiday weekend. First: A whole lot of Americans are losing all of their unemployment benefits as of today. The Associated Press says: “Mary Taboniar went 15 months without a paycheck, thanks to the COVID pandemic. A housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort in Honolulu, the single mother of two saw her income completely vanish as the virus devastated the hospitality industry. For more than a year, Taboniar depended entirely on boosted unemployment benefits and a network of local foodbanks to feed her family. Even this summer as the vaccine rollout took hold and tourists began to travel again, her work was slow to return, peaking at 11 days in August—about half her pre-pandemic workload. Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. Two primary anchors of the government’s COVID protection package are ending or have recently ended. Starting Monday, an estimated 8.9 million people will lose all unemployment benefits. A federal eviction moratorium already has expired.”

• As the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, a history professor, writing for The Conversation, looks back at pre-9/11 days with a piece headlined “An entire generation of Americans has no idea how easy air travel used to be.” A snippet: “By 1973, under the new protocols, air travelers had to pass through a metal detector and have any bags X-rayed to check for weapons or suspicious objects. For the most part, however, these measures were intended to reassure nervous flyers—security theater that sought to minimally impede easy passage from check-in to gate. For domestic travel, it was possible to arrive at the airport terminal 20 to 30 minutes before your flight and still be able to reach the gate in time to board. Families and friends could easily accompany a traveler to their gate for take-off and meet them at the gate upon their return. … In addition, these security measures, though called for by the Federal Aviation Administration, were the responsibility of not the federal government, but the airlines. And to keep costs down, the airlines tended to contract private companies to conduct security screenings that used minimally trained low-paid employees. All that changed with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”

• And finally … the world has lost acting great Michael K. Williams way too soon. He was found dead in his apartment today; he was 54. The New York Times talks about his best-known role on The Wire: “Mr. Williams played Omar Little, a charming vigilante who held up low-level drug dealers, perhaps the most memorable character on a series many consider among the best shows in television history. Omar was gay and openly so in the homophobic, coldblooded world of murder and drugs, a groundbreaking portrayal of a gay Black man on television. Off camera, however, Mr. Williams’s life was often in disarray. He wasted his earnings from ‘The Wire’ on drugs, a spiral that led him to living out of a suitcase on the floor of a house in Newark, an experience he described with candor in an article that appeared on in 2012. … Mr. Williams received five Emmy Award nominations, including one in the upcoming Primetime Emmy Awards this month. He was nominated this year for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series for his portrayal of Montrose Freeman on the HBO show ‘Lovecraft Country.’”

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Jimmy Boegle

Jimmy Boegle is the founding editor and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent. He is also the executive editor and publisher of the Reno News & Review in Reno, Nev. A native of Reno, the Dodgers...