Freddie Gonzalez offers innovative solutions during the pandemic, before recent reopening
TULARE – Thanks to a massive vaccination effort and a drastic decline in COVID-19 cases, theaters who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic are finally reopening.
Freddie Gonzalez, the general manager for Galaxy Theatre in Tulare, is happy to welcome back local movie goers. Gonzalez remembers last March as cases began to rise and the state decided to shut down large gatherings. At the time he was busy setting up for a flashback film, and preparing the release for Disney’s film Onward. Although it was still a question in the back of his mind whether they’d be open at all.
“I remember we were thinking it’s a coinflip if we’re going to be open or not…but for operations, you want to gear up your stock and team and prep for those big releases by Disney,” Gonzalez said.
As any theater manager remembers, the number of patrons went from 150 to 100 to 50, and then ultimately to zero. Gonzalez said when the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) guidelines came down, and the state shutdown all of California’s entertainment sector, there wasn’t anything left for his team to do.
“As soon as that happened, we were forced to furlough our entire team and stick to a skeleton crew, which consists of my [assistant general manager] and I and it wasn’t full time,” Gonzalez said. And the only reason he was able to stay was because of the thousands of dollars worth of equipment that needed maintenance.
“There’s a lot of equipment in our building, including our projector that you have to maintain and test,” Gonzalez said, “and if you don’t, then you’re in a deeper hole later when you get a chance to reopen.”
While everyone was talking about “bending the curve” for two weeks—which ended up being all of spring and into summer last year—Gonzalez pioneered a way to generate revenue by relying on their “bread and butter” product. Well really their popcorn and butter product.
Instead of sitting on his hands, he got to work offering a promotion to would-be patrons where they would get a $25, five-gallon popcorn bag with a $25 gift card. It gave people a buttery and salty treat, but also a look forward to what life will be like after the pandemic. Gonzalez said the response was overwhelming as people wanted to support their local theater. Of course as the pandemic dragged on, and with it regulations to help slow the spread—Gonzalez’s promotion couldn’t last forever. And as a summer surge in Tulare County brought with it even more uncertainty, the Tulare Galaxy general manager was called to help the company’s flagship project in Texas.
“I was blessed to be given the opportunity to help out that team over there with community networking, helping out the general manager and their team because Texas was not forced to shut down completely like California,” Gonzalez said.
Fortunately, he could rely on the skills of his assistant general manager to generate revenue here at home. Gonzalez said that it’s easy to forget that federal assistance was not immediate and bills still needed to be paid.
“Bills don’t go away, and you can only get extensions for so long before you become delinquent. So we had to continue to think outside the box and figure out how we can make any penny we could,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also realized after summer that popcorn promotions wouldn’t be enough. Only making the situation worse, Hollywood was not making any new content. But fortunately, some regulations eased, and people were ready to get back into the world any way they could. That allowed Galaxy to give people a living room like experience, albeit with a very limited attendance of only 20 people or less.
“Everywhere that our company could, we launched a promotion where it’s up to 20 guests, for $99. And basically, [you could] bring the people they’ve been quarantined with their family…to a location that’s open, and they choose what they want to watch,” Gonzalez said.
According to a press release last week Galaxy is offering to hook up any gaming console—Nintendo Switch, PS, XBOX, etc.—so visitors can play their favorite movie, catch the latest UFC fight, or use the “big screen” for a professional presentation.
Tulare County is fairing better in terms of metrics than some of their other Central Valley counterparts. After just two weeks in the long coveted red tier, the county is quickly approaching the even less restrictive orange tier.
Tulare County Health and Human Services director, Tim Lutz said in his weekly COVID-19 presentation last week that the county could reach the orange tier quickly because of a drop in their new case rate.
“There is a stipulation within [the state’s] case rate adjustment that if your positivity is below 3.5%, the case rate adjustment actually does not apply,” Lutz said.
The county has been continually hampered by the state’s “adjusted case rate” metric, which hurt the county’s ability to break into the red tier for months. But without the adjusted case rate as a factor the county is now focused on bringing down their “health equity positivity metric.”
Lutz said when the state reaches four million vaccinations for the communities that fall into the health equity positivity metric, the county will then fall under the orange tier. As of last week the state had administered 2,820,000 vaccine doses to people in the “healthy places index.”
If the county reaches the orange tier, theaters are allowed to open their facility to 50% capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer, according to California Department of Public Health guidelines.
When the theater reopened on last Friday night, March 26, people were not in short supply—albeit there is a 25% maximum. Gonzalez said the theater had as many as 400 people on Friday, and 1,000 people over the weekend. While the 25% limit is a bother, it’s still worth noting the theater maxed out every showing.
In a press release last week, Gonzalez stated that along with over 435 other movie theater companies in the US, they are part of the “CinemaSafe program,” and committed to implementing expert-backed, industry-specific health and safety guidelines.
Maximum auditorium capacities have been reduced to follow local and state guidelines. All team members and guests over 2 years old are required to wear face masks at all times unless eating or drinking in an auditorium. Galaxy’s ticketing software on the web site and app automatically block out two seats on each side following proper social distancing recommendations.
“We encourage guests to purchase their tickets and reserve their seats online before arrival to reduce as many touchpoints as possible. Showtimes have been staggered and spread out to reduce the number of people in the lobby and hallways at any given time,” the press release states.
Tickets are currently on sale for Ray and the last dragon, Tom & Jerry, Unholy and Godzilla vs. Kong.
Regal Theatres announced on March 22 it would be opening select theaters this coming Friday, April 2 for the release of “Godzilla vs. Kong” and all of its U.S. locations by April 16 for the release of “Mortal Kombat.” Visalia was not among those listed as most of the eight locations opening were located in Southern California. The theater chain is updating the list daily and will soon release a list of theaters with opening dates on April 9 and April 16. As of press time, no screenings were listed for the theater’s locations in Visalia including downtown and the Sequoia Mall.
“We have long-awaited this moment when we can welcome audiences back to our Regal Theatres and restore our essential role within the communities we serve,” Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Cineworld, the London-based company which owns Regal Theatres said.
Guests will be required to wear a mask at all times in the lobby, hallways, restrooms and auditoriums. Guests not complying with the mask policy will be asked to leave but may return with a mask on. Two seats will be spaced between each reservation to maintain social distancing. Concessions will offer a reduced menu and self-serve condiment stands will be closed.
“With the health and safety of our customers, staff, and communities as our top priority, we continue to take all the necessary precautions and abide by our CinemaSafe guidelines to confidently provide a safe and comfortable experience. With capacity restrictions expanding to 50% or more across most U.S. states, we will be able to operate profitably in our biggest markets. We will also be monitoring developments closely in the U.K. and across Europe as we set to gradually reopen across the world in line with local government guidance.”