A different kind of Christmas movie drove people to their local cinemas this season, and it came at a time the theater industry could use a boost in business.

“Christmas With The Chosen: The Messengers,” is a feature length installment of the popular streaming show “The Chosen,” based on the life of Jesus.

For Desert Sky Cinema in Sahuarita, it brought in a much needed influx of moviegoers and was the first time they have come close to selling out since the pandemic began.

Owner Tom Becker said the movie was planned for a two-day run but because of its national success, distributor Fathom Events let them play it a full week.

The movie broke records at Fathom; it was its biggest opening weekend at $4.28 million and the biggest "out the gate" sales with $1.5 million in the first 12 hours tickets were available.

"The Chosen" is the first multi-season TV show about the life of Christ and is completely crowd-funded. It was offered for free and viewers were asked to "pay it forward" and donate to create future seasons. Viewers have contributed more than $40 million so far, and by Aug. 14, it had reached a reported 300 million viewers worldwide. The Christmas special was screened in 1,700 theaters. 

“We were very pleased,” Becker said. “We came close to selling out the first night and that’s very rare for this time of COVID. We have not even been coming close to selling out. It’s the closest we've had.”

Becker said they have had a relationship with Fathom for years and jumped on the opportunity to show “The Chosen” Christmas film. 

But Becker said the unexpected success can only do so much. The pandemic has hit theaters across the country in a big way, but the problems for cinemas started before that. 

High Sierra Theatres, owner of Desert Sky Cinema, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in November 2019, shortly before the pandemic. According to the filing, the company listed $1,312,000 in assets and $1,766,017 in liabilities. 

Cinemas have struggled throughout the pandemic as Hollywood released fewer films in theaters and fans were reluctant to return in person. But streaming movies into homes and higher ticket prices started driving down business before the pandemic and COVID amplified it. 

According to Comscore data, a national analytics company for media platforms, ticket sales for movies are still 70% under where they were in 2019. Some large movie theater chains have filed for bankruptcy or closed. 

In March, Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy and AMC narrowly avoided bankruptcy in January 2021.  

“Industry news is telling us the industry won't recover until 2023,” Becker said. “Right now we are attracting young people, teens, to the theater but it’s not enough that we need (in order) to do well.”

“National news said older people, non-teens, will likely not return for a year or two. It's a struggle, to say the least, but there is nothing we can do. We can't control this virus.”

Becker said $700,000 from the Small Business Association's Shuttered Venue Operators Grant has kept them afloat. The program was established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, and amended by the American Rescue Plan Act.

“That’s the only thing keeping us open,” he said. “We are doing in a day what we used to do in an hour.”

Along with the special showing of “The Chosen,” Becker said they have a lineup of opera and ballet coming, streamed live from The Metropolitan Opera through Fathom. They have been doing these types of showings since 2013, and they have been well-attended.

“When you come to a Saturday showing, they actually bring a camera to the Met and beam the show in by satellite, live,” he said. “It’s a premium price for us and they get a big chunk of that for them to survive.”

Desert Sky has reduced-price encore showings afterward.

The theater needs upgrading and Becker said a woman in Sahuarita recently contacted him via email with a desire to start a GoFundMe for renovations. He hasn’t spoken with her yet but said the effort would be welcomed.

“We would match it by $10,000, because we have some funds available for renovations, but it would cost more than $10,000 to repaint and put in new carpet,” he said. “We need the community's support and a GoFundMe would help us.”

But what’s needed even more is customers.

“We need people to come back out again,” he said. “There’s not been one COVID-related transmission in the whole U.S. in a movie theater that’s been recorded so it’s a relatively safe environment. It’s a big auditorium and people can spread out.”

A study in Germany released this month called the CineCov Project found that regular cinema ventilation is "enough to ensure COVID-19 infection risk is minimal in a standard theatrical environment."

Becker said Hollywood has bounced back from 2020, and great new movies are coming to the theater. He’s hopeful for the next two years, but said they will need the community support to survive.

“2022 will be a good year and 2023 will be a banner year. We just have to figure out how to survive through 2022,” he said.

Desert Sky Cinema's movie ticket are $7 for adults and $5 for children and seniors. Some major theaters in Tucson are charging about $10 for general admission and $7 for children. 

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728 


Reporter Jamie Verwys grew up in Sahuarita and graduated from the high school in 2006. She lives in Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2018.

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