BILLINGS — Movie-goers had their first chance in more than two months to get some popcorn and watch a movie while staying socially distanced inside the Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings on Saturday.
The historic Billings theater closed on March 15 due to COVID-19. Montana movie theaters along with gyms were allowed to reopen on May 15 following an addendum to Gov. Steve Bullock's phase one plan to reopen the state.
The Babcock is operated by the Billings-based nonprofit Art House Cinema and Pub. Other than a members-only sneak peek night on Friday, the Saturday showing of Jurassic Park at 3 p.m. was the first time the Babcock had reopened.
"Our capacity right now is 200. We have several rows that are marked off where it’s just no seating for right now but hopefully within the next few weeks or months we’ll be able to start reopening some more seats until we’re at full capacity again," said Brian Oestreich, creative director at Art House.
For a little less than a year, Billings has been used to seeing current, blockbuster films headlining the marquee at the Babcock. Oestrich said the theater will now show older, classic films, while Hollywood executives put the finishing touches on the summer's newest films.
"(We want to) remind you why we have big theaters like this and why it’s great to be with the community. You know, comedies are funnier when people are laughing with you. Action is more intense when there’s other people around you on the edge of their seat. It’s great to have people back here enjoying some great films," Oestreich said.
Steven Spielberg's 1975 aquatic thriller Jaws will begin showings at the Babcock starting Friday.
Customers entering the theater will have a slightly different experience while waiting in line to buy tickets and snacks. Floor markers were placed to promote social distancing while in the queue and customers are no longer allowed to salt their own popcorn. As well, certain rows of theater seats are blocked off with family groups required to sit three seats apart, Oestreich said.
A big piece that's missing from both the Babcock and the Art House Cinema is the pool of about 50 volunteers. Oestreich said they have been asked to stay home for their safety. The nonprofit's five paid staff members are running both of the theaters in the mean time.
"A lot of our volunteers are a little bit older. And also we want to make sure that we have our guidelines for ourselves set before we start to try to train others on them as well," Oestreich said.
If people are weary about getting out-and-about to catch a movie, there's still a way to watch something new and support the Art House. The nonprofit has four different movies that are available to stream at home from the website arthousebillings.com.
Oestreich said the purchase price between $12 - $5 will be split 50/50 between the film distributors and the Art House.
“If you’re not ready to come out, we will still be here once things kind of calm down a little bit. We’ll be ready for you," Oestreich said.