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More seats than audience allowed as Hippodrome brings first-run movies back to Waco

More seats than audience allowed as Hippodrome brings first-run movies back to Waco

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The Waco Hippodrome brought first-run films back to Waco for the first time in six weeks this weekend, and ticket sales for a few screenings reflected a new reality: Sellouts measured in 20 tickets or fewer.

The Hippodrome resumed showing movies on its five screens and reopened its Raleigh restaurant after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott included movie theaters in an April 27 order. Abbott allowed limited reopenings for many Texas businesses and restaurants after weeks of shutdown to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.

Movie theaters were permitted to show films again, but only at 25% capacity and with social distancing measures in place.

For the Hippodrome, that means limited ability for ticket buyers to choose their seats and more frequent cleaning of seats, tables, restrooms and other places with customer traffic.

Still, a pent-up Waco interest in moviegoing kept the box office busy on its first day back.

“Phones are kinda ringing off the hook,” Hippodrome communications and design coordinator Molly Noah said.

Screening this weekend are “Trolls World Tour,” “The Way Back” with Ben Affleck, “The Invisible Man” starring Elisabeth Moss, the inspirational “I Still Believe,” and the Vin Diesel action film “Bloodshot.” Each film will have four screenings daily.

The 25% occupancy restrictions mean the Hippodrome’s theaters will sell out screenings at much smaller numbers — about 50 seats for the main theater, 33 for the balcony theater and fewer than 20 apiece for the three newer screening rooms — leading Hippodrome employees to recommend moviegoers call in advance about ticket availability.

While the movie theater was closed to the public, the Hippodrome’s staff spent the downtime preparing for customers’ return, repainting walls with an oil-based, less permeable paint; deep cleaning and sanitizing carpets and floors; and installing 22 sanitizing stations at theater entrances and exits, restrooms and the building’s elevator.

The theater became the first in Waco to return to operations as coronavirus measures started to allow limited reopening.

National theater chains AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas, which run the AMC Classic Galaxy 16 and Regal Jewel 16 Cinema, respectively, have each made announcements targeting reopening dates in July. Premiere Cinemas, which operates Waco’s Premiere Cinema 6, did not reply to questions about its reopening.

To comply with state reopening guidelines, the Hippodrome will determine seating spacing. Small groups may sit together with two empty seats between each viewer or group and alternate rows empty. Online customers will not be able to choose their seats, but box office personnel will determine seating to ensure proper spacing.

Those standing in box office lines must leave 6 feet between them, and theater personnel in the lobby will watch to make sure spacing is adequate, Noah said. Theaters will be cleaned and sanitized between each screening, and the Hippodrome’s bathrooms will be sanitized every two hours.

Social spacing also will be the rule at the Raleigh, where tables have been removed to allow more room between patrons, shrinking occupancy to 13 diners. The Hippodrome’s Hightop, however, will remain closed.

The Raleigh also will offer to-go orders and curbside delivery for the first time. Moviegoers can still order food and drink in the theaters and can order from the Raleigh to take into the theaters, Noah said.

The Hippodrome’s gradual reopening this week is the first local in-person moviegoing opportunity for many in Waco. Home quarantines and sheltering in place have led millions of Americans to replace regular visits to movie theaters with watching streaming video at home.

Video on Demand offerings, where viewers pay a fee to watch a film release online or over their television, also have seen a boost, with “Trolls World Tour” bringing in a surprising $100 million in Video on Demand rentals when it could not be shown in theaters.

“Trolls World Tour” now is one of several Video on Demand releases making their Hippodrome debuts this week. Noah said the Pixar animated film “Onward” had tied up several Hippodrome screens in the weeks before the shutdown, shouldering out releases including “I Still Believe” and “The Way Back.”

Now those films can come back.

As with so much during the coronavirus pandemic, no one knows for sure what is next. With Hollywood studios busy postponing their summer blockbusters into the fall and beyond, the next major film release still on the books is the July 16 premiere of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

Major theater chains have not announced any timetable for reopening, though industry speculation suggests chains may show a mix of classics and previously released films in the weeks before first-run movies return.

The film distributors that provide the Hippodrome’s movies may offer something similar, Noah said.

The situation for live concerts is even more uncertain. Most of the Hippodrome’s live concerts this spring have moved to dates in the fall and winter, but it remains unknown what concerts with audiences would look like with social distancing in effect. Noah said the theater plans to try more live streaming of performers on the Hippodrome stage in the weeks ahead .

The Hippodrome’s Austin Avenue neighbor Cultivate 7twelve will reopen Thursday with hours of noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and a new exhibit by artist Katy Ward. The Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum will reopen to the public Monday, and the Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute is planning to reopen Thursday.

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