By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
Star Wars fans have been camped out at Los Angeles theaters for nearly two weeks. Martinez fans may be more restrained, but the local movie theater and the nearby drive-in expected patrons in costume to arrive early for local screenings of the “The Force Awakens,” which opened Thursday, Dec. 14.
“Technically, we’re sold out,” John Foley, general manager of the Contra Costa Stadium Cinemas, said of the movie’s 7 p.m. debut screening that day.
Earlier this week, Foley said Contra Costa Stadium Cinemas, 66 Center Ave., had seats available for later showings – 10 screenings total Thursday – but he expected those would be sellouts, too.
In contrast, there should be space at drive-in theaters, said Tony Maniscalco, vice president of marketing for West Wind Drive-Ins and Public Markets, which operates the closest drive-in to Martinez, at 1611 Solano Way, Concord.
That’s because audiences aren’t limited to car spaces or the number of speakers provided on the grounds. Depending on the size of the vehicles, any number can park in front of those gigantic screens, Maniscalco said.
Foley said he not only expected sell-out crowds Thursday, he anticipates heavy attendance for other weekend showings of “The Force Awakens,” the seventh movie in the “Star Wars” franchise.
He said some of his theater patrons often dress for popular blockbusters.
“Movies like ‘Twilight’ and ‘Harry Potter’ always have had this kind of craziness,” he said. “‘Harry Potter’ movies probably hold the record.” The “Avengers” movies and “Jurassic World” were popular with local viewers, too, he said.
But “The Force Awakens” is likely to shatter any level of receipts his theater has seen before, Foley said.
He and his projectionist got a chance to see the movie before most other Martinez moviegoers did. But the rest of his employees had to wait their turn along with patrons.
“The studios are strict,” he said.
Contra Costa Stadium Cinemas seat 984 total in its eight auditoriums, and the new Star Wars movie initially will be shown in five, Foley said. That’s an acknowledgment of the movie’s anticipated record-setting blockbuster attendance.
He said “The Force Awakens” may stay in his theater for a couple of months, an unusually long time by modern standards. The James Bond movie “Spectre,” which opened Nov. 6, also popular with viewers, has been in the Martinez theater for six weeks.
At one time, blockbusters might be kept at a cinema multiplex for months.
The original “Star Wars” movie had been considered a “tough sell” to theaters and opened in just 32 official locations in May 1977. But during its first run, “Star Wars” experienced multiple 60-week engagements. Officially, its first release ended July 20, 1978, and the movie was considered “re-released” by 20th Century Fox the next day.
One theater chain kept “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” released in 1981, in its auditoriums for a full year and celebrated its “birthday” with cake and contests.
With the advent of downloads, pay-per-view and DVDs, few movies get such extended runs, Foley said.
Studios often shy away from releasing movies the same weekend as a supposed juggernaut. But two movies are daring to do just that this weekend, Foley said. They are the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy “Sisters” and the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks animated feature, “The Road Chip.”
“We’ll keep those through Christmas,” Foley said.
Foley said the theater may run out of room as Christmas nears. “The studios produce so many movies. It’s hard to balance – we won’t get them all,” he said.
Another four or five wide releases are slated for the Christmas weekend, among them “Joy,” a biopic starring Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro; “Daddy’s Home,” a comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell; the Will Smith drama “Concussion;” and the remake of the 1991 action movie “Point Break.”
However, none is expected to draw the crowds of “The Force Awakens.” Foley’s theaters, all of which have digital projection and sound, will give viewers options for three-dimension viewing combined with “D-BOX” seats that move and vibrate.
Foley said he always looks forward to high-profile movies that draw patrons away from at-home options and into his theater.
“This should be a big holiday for us,” he said.
Maniscalco said he’s also excited about crowds at West Wind Drive-In. “The Force Awakens” started Thursday, Dec. 14, at the drive-in, too.
“We hope it’ll be crazy with people dressed up as Star Wars characters,” he said earlier in the week. “We expect a big crowd, especially for this one. It’s one people have been waiting for 10 years to see.”
Maniscaclo said that unlike some walk-in theaters, his drive-ins are encouraging people to come in costume, including those requiring masks. Some theater chains have asked patrons not to come dressed as Darth Vader, Boba Fett, droids, Jawas or stormtroopers because those costumes require the wearer to cover the face.
In fact, if someone shows up to the drive-in dressed as a Stormtrooper, “we might put you in charge of security!” Maniscalco joked.
And it won’t just be patrons who show up as members of the Star Wars cast. “Our staff will be dressed up in costume, too,” he said. “The drive-in is a little different from the walk-in theater. We have more fun, and we poke fun at ourselves.”
Drive-ins have a nostalgic ambiance that indoor theaters can’t match, he said. Occasionally, West Wind has free movie nights, during which it shows older movies. During a recent showing of “E.T.,” some parents brought their children to see the Steven Spielberg movie because a drive-in was where they saw it when it was released in 1982, he said.
Like Contra Costa Cinemas, West Wind will be showing other movies as well. Playing on the other screen opposite “The Force Awakens” will be the Alvin and the Chipmunks movie and “Creed,” the latest in the “Rocky” saga. The drive-in staff hasn’t made an announcement, but the Star Wars movie may be coupled with “The Good Dinosaur” in a double feature.
West Wind Concord has been open five years, after being closed for five years, Maniscalco said. And many residents, including those in Martinez, are glad to see it back in operation.
“It’s a bit of Americana for those who understand it,” Maniscalco said. “There is a retro vibe, an old school vibe.” He said going to a drive-in is “stepping back in time to the ‘American Graffiti’ days.” And that movie was directed by George Lucas, who created the Star Wars franchise.
For families, “it’s lower key.” Because patrons sit in their own cars, their babies can cry without disturbing others viewing the movie. “You can talk on cell phones and text – nobody cares. You’re in your own little world, watching a movie.” Another benefit for families is the price – $7.95 for general admission, $1 for children 5 to 11. Younger tikes get in free.
Besides nostalgia and price, what draws movie-goers to the drive-in and away from their home monitors or televisions is the size of a drive-in screen. And drive-ins don’t have dark, muddy versions of movies anymore, he said.
“The Concord screen is just shy of 100 feet wide, and it’s three stories tall,” he said. “If you are there early enough, it’s an amazing scene.”
Not only has his company, which once was the Century theater chain, switched to digital, “we’ve installed the largest digital projectors made, so now it’s as bright as in a walk-in theater.”
The sound has improved from the days patrons had to fasten a squawky, metal speaker to their windows. Now drive-in movie-goers tune their FM radios into the theater’s broadcast.
That’s why it’s hard to sell out a drive-in, he said. “There’s always room – you’re not tied to a speaker.”
Fortunately for local motorists, the opening of the new Star Wars movie didn’t cause closure of Martinez streets to accommodate crowds flocking to the movie. That’s an inconvenience Los Angeles area commuters faced all week.
In larger cities, Star Wars fans slept in tents and camped out in front of theaters in hopes of getting the best seats, even if they had bought their tickets weeks ahead of time.
An Australian couple decided to make the movie event even more memorable. Dressed in movie-themed attire, they took their marriage vows earlier this week in front of the famed Chinese Theater in Hollywood.