Summer blockbusters could help boost business to near pre-pandemic levels for East Grand Forks theater

Stai said quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to what films are released in theaters, but having big movies finally come out every weekend at nearly pre-pandemic levels has been encouraging for her and the theater industry as a whole.

Penny Stai.jpeg
River Cinema's Penny Stai is excited for this summer's slate of movies. (Jacob Holley/Grand Forks Herald)
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EAST GRAND FORKS – With countless blockbuster films set to come to theaters in the next few months, River Cinema owner Penny Stai is looking forward to the biggest summer the theater has had since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not even one month into the summer movie season, a few films have already become boons to an industry left reeling during the lockdowns of 2020 — namely "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," which is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest in its multi-annual releases.

“'Doctor Strange' just crushed it,” Stai said.

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" surpassed "The Batman," which released March 4, as the highest-grossing film of 2022 so far — which is impressive considering "The Batman" was considered to be a huge hit for Warner Brothers and HBO Max, which offered the film on its streaming service before it was released as physical media.

"Doctor Strange" has not quite hit the level "Spider-Man: No Way Home" hit in December, but Stai said MCU films are not propping up the theater industry as much as some may say.


“We don't just live for the (comics),” Stai said. “There’s so much more, even 'Where The Crawdads Sing,' here's 'Bullet Train' coming out… There's all these other movies, and those are important.”

Stai said quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to what films are released in theaters, but having big movies finally come out every weekend at nearly pre-pandemic levels has been encouraging for her and the theater industry as a whole.

“They didn't release a lot of movies in January and February, and they're starting to do it now,” Stai said. “They were doing it like one big movie every three weeks, and now they're gonna start like every week. So then it gets really exciting.”

Stai contends multiplex theaters (ones with multiple screens under one roof) need a variety of different genres with different target audiences to attract different crowds.

“That's what we need,” Stai said. “A multiplex needs variety to appeal to old and young, men, women and families. As a multiplex, you need that to fill your seats. I can't survive off of a 'Doctor Strange,' but I can if I have 'Doctor Strange,' 'Top Gun,' 'Minions' and 'Thor.'”

Many films were pushed due to the pandemic, and while most of them have finally seen theaters, one released May 27 that has been delayed almost two years: "Top Gun: Maverick." The film was originally set to be released in 2018 before filming delays caused it to be pushed back first to July 12, 2019 and then once more to June 24, 2020. Counting its original delays, the film has now hit theaters nearly three years later than scheduled, but early reviews indicate the wait will be worth it to fans, as it sits at a crackerjack 97% on Rotten Tomatoes as of opening weekend.

“I saw (it) at a theater convention in Vegas a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very, very good,” Stai said. “The audience erupted in applause multiple times during the movie. It was fantastic.”

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"Jurassic World: Dominion," which releases June 10, is tracking to have an even bigger box office run than "Top Gun: Maverick" "by quite a bit,” according to Stai. Between "Elvis," "Lightyear," "Nope," "Thor: Love and Thunder" and more, this summer has a wide variety of genres — exactly what theaters are looking for right now.


Summer 2023 is going to be even bigger, according to Stai. She said part of why the theater experience continues to rebound in the wake of the pandemic is the shared desire of a communal experience.

“Why do you go out to eat when it costs so much money to do that?” Stai said. “Why don't you just eat at home every day? Why do you do that? Why do you go to watch a hockey game live? It's because you're surrounded by other people, and they're having fun, and you're enjoying the moment with others. You can get a better view of that football game at home, but why do you go down to watch the Vikings? Because it's special, and it's awesome.”

Jacob Holley joined the Grand Forks Herald as its business reporter in June 2021.

Holley's beat at the Grand Forks Herald is broad and includes a variety of topics, including small business, national trends and more.

Readers can reach Holley at him on Twitter @JakeHolleyMedia.
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