With niche films and empty seats, going to the movies in Anchorage feels different

Two moviegoers look at the the new safety measure signs at Century 16 on Sept. 29, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage’s largest movie theaters have been open for a few weeks and customers venturing back are finding a much different experience than before the pandemic.

Ramped up sanitation measures, far smaller crowds and an eclectic selection of titles are some of the ways going to the movies feels different now. 

Dennis Flynn was strategic about finding a movie that would keep the crowds away at Century-16 in Midtown Anchorage last week. He chose “Leap,” a Chinese film about a volleyball team. 

“It means I’ll probably have the theater to myself. I don’t imagine too many people will see a movie in Mandarin Chinese,” he said. 

His plan worked. Other than two people who stopped by for 10 minutes in the middle of the show, he had the theater to himself. 

The usual selection of big budget movies aren’t being released right now, so what’s playing is a grab-bag of niche and vintage titles. Movies on show at theaters around Anchorage range from “Empire Strikes Back,” to “On the Basis of Sex,” a 2018 biography of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And there is “Akira,” a 1988 Japanese film, which Wikipedia describes as “animated post-apocalyptic cyberpunk.” 

But there are also other options for using theater space: private screenings. Starting at $100, spaces can be rented to screen one of a list of older movies. Nathan Austin arrived at Century 16 as part of a group of 20 — mostly kids, some of whom are dressed up as wizards —  who had reserved a screening of a Harry Potter movie. 

“Now the theaters are open. I don’t see why people aren’t coming back,” he said. 

Austin himself isn’t worried about COVID-19. He said he’s been going to church regularly and would take the mask off if he could. 

a sign that says "Wipe on Wipe off" in the corridor leading to the movie theater. A family walks at the end.
Moviegoers enter the Century 16 theater in Anchorage on Sept. 28, 2020 (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“I just do this to appease the public,” he said. 

Theaters themselves are doing everything they can to show moviegoers that it’s safe. Cinemark, the corporate owner of Century 16, disinfects all surfaces every 30 minutes, staggers showtimes to avoid rushes at the bathrooms or concessions, and leaves empty seats at the theaters between parties, along with a slew of other precautions.

Evidence suggests that going theaters does carry some risk – though not as much as many other public areas. On one hand you’re stuck in an enclosed area with other people for at least a few hours. On the other, masks are required and there’s not a whole lot of singing or talking, things scientists say make places like bars and music venues risky. 

People craving the experience of being in a theater must be willing to take some risks, but moviegoer Roxanne Bulglarin said she has limits. 

“If it’s going to be more than 20 [people] I probably wouldn’t go just to be safe because I even though I feel like everybody should be doing we’re doing the same thing. You really don’t know if everybody’s doing the same thing,” she said. 

It’s her second time back and she’s felt safe so far with just about 10 people in the theater. 

Eta-Starr Edwardsen signed in at the front door and headed straight to the concessions stand. She was there for one thing: popcorn, drizzled in liquid butter. 

It was for her 10-year-old son’s birthday. She’s not quite ready to get back to the movies, but might get there soon.  

“Staying at home is getting on our nerves,” she said.