Homer Theatre re-opens — but cautiously with restrictions

‘Tenet’ starts off new movie program

There’s new hope at the Homer Theatre, which is slated to reopen in October.

Ever since the historic theater closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has run inspiring quotes from movies on its marquee. On Sept. 12, one sign said, “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night,” spoken by the character General Leia Organa in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

After months of weathering the economic fallout of the pandemic, the Homer Theatre will emerge from the night as it once again shows first-run movies, starting with Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film “Tenet” at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2. Movies will be shown only Friday through Monday, with a nightly 6 p.m. showing and a 2:30 p.m. Saturday matinee. Bargain Monday with discounted admission will continue.

The reopening also comes with another change: Alexandra “Ali” Sutton, daughter of Homer Theatre owners Lynette and Jamie Sutton, who bought the business in 2002, will take over running the theater from the strategy and operations end. Colleen Carroll will continue as manager.

“It’s my distinct honor to be taking over the theater from my parents after 17 years,” Ali Sutton said in a phone interview from her Petaluma, California home. “They deserve to retire and enjoy themselves. I’m delighted to help them do that.”

The reopening comes after other nonessential Homer businesses reopened in late May with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “Reopen Alaska Responsibly Plan.” The theater did a two-week trial run in June, but with no major studio releases happening, the movie business nationally and locally stalled. “Tenet” was the first big movie to open during the pandemic.

Carroll said she’s confident that new safety protocols will work out. Those include:

• Online ticketing and purchase of admission. Carroll encouraged people to buy tickets ahead of time to reserve admission. Individual seats cannot be reserved, however. Tickets will be scanned to minimize contact. Carroll encouraged online sales and cautioned people not to arrive on “Homer time” — 5 minutes before the show — and expect to get a seat without buying tickets online.

“If you want a seat and can only come a certain day, you should book online and reserve that seat,” she said

• Admission is limited to 50 people per show in the 215-seat auditorium. Families and people in the same social bubble can sit together, with sections of seats separated from others.

• Mask wearing is mandatory in the lobby and restrooms but not in the auditorium.

“Once in your seat it’s time for popcorn and treats,” Sutton said.

• Social distancing is advised while entering the theater and buying concessions. The outside and inside floors will be marked off with tape. Plastic barriers have been installed at counters. What the Suttons call “the finest popcorn in Alaska” will continue to be sold along with drinks and other snacks.

• Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of the theater, including seats, between shows.

Sutton, 32, comes to the theater business with a background in marketing. Homer High School students from the early 2000s may remember her when she was a sophomore in 2003 and she lived here with her aunt and uncle, Tara Moss and Carl Bice.

After graduating from Davidson College with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Sutton said she considered going into law like her father. She took some time off to work, and wound up doing event marketing for the Bank of the West. She liked marketing so much she got a master’s degree in business administration from the Hope International Business School in San Francisco. Sutton had just started looking for marketing jobs, “and then COVID hit,” she said. Since then she has been doing marketing consulting for athletic companies and fitness studios.

Sutton said the family feels comfortable reopening the theater because Homer has had a relatively low number of positive COVID-19 cases. Currently, the Southern Kenai Peninsula is in the low-risk category used by the Kenai Peninsula School District to manage school activities. South Peninsula Hospital had no positive tests from Aug. 20 until Sept. 17.

“Here’s just hoping people hold steady,” Sutton said. “… The control of COVID-19 is in your hands right now.”

Keeping Homer safe is paramount in how the theater reopens, she said.

“Our number one priority is ensuring anyone who steps place steps foot? into the theater will stay healthy and feel comfortable being there,” she said.

Originally, the theater had hoped to reopen with “Wonder Woman 1984,” but the release got delayed, so the theater went with “Tenet,” Nolan’s time-bending science fiction thriller featuring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki. Nolan also directed “Inception” and “Dunkirk.”

It’s things like movie release postponements that has made reopening a challenge. Carroll said that what happens in major markets like Los Angeles and New York influences small markets like Homer.

“That’s the driving force,” she said. “If Los Angeles and New York aren’t open, these new movies aren’t going to be released.”

At the same time, like other businesses, the Homer Theatre has been holding on thanks to support from federal and local programs that distribute CARES Act funding. That helped keep employees like assistant manager Abi Rios getting a paycheck. Sutton credited Rios with keeping equipment going during the theater’s closure. Employee Leighanne Dash helped Carroll come up with the clever marquee quotes seen over the summer. Gabe Dash crawled out on the roof to put the letters on the marquee.

Sutton also praised Carroll for coming up with innovative ideas to keep the theater alive, like selling concessions even when it couldn’t show movies.

“She is the heart and soul of the Homer Theatre,” Sutton said.

Still, the relief money could only keep the theater going so long.

“We have to open at some point,” Carroll said. “We need to get our employees back to work. We need people to come out.”

Carroll said that at limited capacity the theater should be only to keep going. With not a lot of blockbuster movies scheduled to come out, she said she’s looking at less well-known films, like “Unhinged,” with Russell Crowe and “Freaky,” with Vince Vaughan.

“That opens the door for smaller, little films that in normal times we might not have played,” Carroll said.

With this year’s Homer Documentary Film Festival canceled, Sutton and Carroll said they also might bring back the documentary films of 2020 people missed for a special Doc Film night, possibly on Tuesday nights.

Sutton said when the Homer Theatre announced last month on its Facebook page that it would be reopening, they got a lot of positive comments.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “We hope the town of Homer is excited and ready for us.”

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Modifications to the Homer Theatre lobby including 6-foot distancing marks and plastic shields at the concession counter, as seen here in this photo taken Sept. 14, 2020, at the movie theater in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Homer Theatre)

Modifications to the Homer Theatre lobby including 6-foot distancing marks and plastic shields at the concession counter, as seen here in this photo taken Sept. 14, 2020, at the movie theater in Homer, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Homer Theatre)

Jamie Sutton, left, and daughter Alexandra “Ali” Sutton, posed in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Sutton)

Jamie Sutton, left, and daughter Alexandra “Ali” Sutton, posed in an undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Sutton)