Over the past two weeks, almost every independent, locally owned movie theater in America closed due to COVID-19, whether they were forced to by local and state governments or chose to do so in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. On paper, they’ve only shut their doors temporarily—but faced with the prospect of being shuttered for months, theaters across the country are worried they might go out of business.
“If this is a few weeks, no big deal. But if, as many people expect, it stretches well past that—if it goes to a month, or multiple months—it's going to get very challenging,” Dylan Skolnick, the co-director of Long Island’s Cinema Arts Centre, told VICE. “We had a program on Sunday, and I was definitely wondering, Will we have another program? Will we reopen?”
While indie theaters are closed, they still have to cover the cost of rent, property tax, insurance, utilities, and other hard, fixed expenses. A number of them are continuing to pay their employees, from full-time, salaried staffers—like executive directors and programmers—to hourly workers who take tickets and serve concessions.
“Every week that we're closed, we're in the tens of thousands of dollars that we're losing. If we're closed for months, it's probably going to be a $100,000 loss,” Ryan Oestreich, the general manager of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, told VICE. "I don't know how you're going to make 100 percent of it back."
This is the first time many indie theaters have ever closed down, even temporarily. For decades—through World War II, through 9/11—Skolnick’s theater remained open. The Music Box has been in continuous operation since 1929. On Thursday, Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre closed indefinitely for the first time since it opened 80 years ago. And there’s no guarantee it will come back.
"If this really does last for two months, I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to do," Christopher Escobar, the Plaza’s owner, told VICE. "We're the only historic theater in Atlanta, the only locally owned theater. All of the love, blood, sweat, and tears of all the people who have done this before me is counting on me not fucking this up, and somehow finding a way to make it work."
The only way independent movie theaters will survive, several theater owners and staffers said, is if everyday moviegoers rally behind them. Many indies are non-profits; the best way to support them is to make a donation. Almost all of them offer memberships, where customers pay a flat fee for discounted tickets, free screenings, access to special events, and other benefits, and theaters are hoping people buy or renew them. They're also counting on customers to purchase gift cards at a time when, small as that contribution may seem, every dollar counts.
Indie theaters have already started making pitches to customers to donate, become members, and convert their tickets for cancelled showings into donations—but when so many people are struggling financially, some are reluctant to ask for help.
"We do have to keep in mind that to us, it's very personal, and it hurts. But in the bigger scheme of things, we're just not as important as other people," Martin McCaffrey, the director of the Capri Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, told VICE. "There are people out there who are sick. They need the money more than we do. Monetizing the catastrophe is really not what we want to be in the position of doing."
Several theater owners and staffers said they saw a surge in donations and memberships after they decided to close. But it’s hard to tell if that will be enough to keep indie theaters afloat.
"I don't know that we're going to get enough gift cards and memberships to make up the loss," Oestreich said. "But even the small ones you get, it still has a larger effect on you. I got an email from a customer who said they were buying a membership for a friend, and I swear, I was in the low of the day, and it almost brought tears to my eyes."
Long before the first indie theater in the U.S. closed out of caution—which happened well before any Regal, AMC, Alamo Drafthouse, or other chain took the same step—hundreds of theater owners and staffers started discussing COVID-19 on an email thread operated by the Art House Convergence, an association for independently owned theaters. They shared information on the spread of the virus, the steps cities were taking to curtail mass gatherings, and what they could do to make their theaters as safe as possible for their customers and employees, from cutting their capacity to disinfecting their seats between each screening. Theater owners and staffers said it's been a priceless resource—not just for information, but to help them feel less alone in what is often a lonely battle to keep their businesses above water.
"If you're an independent theater operator, you might be the only person who has your job in the town where you're based. That can be really isolating," Alison Kozberg, the managing director of the Convergence, told VICE. "The network and community of Art House Convergence allows theater operators and staff to connect with people who are navigating the exact challenges that they are. And what I see on the network is a tremendous amount of generosity."
Even while they’re closed, independent theaters are continuing to serve their audiences online. Through a “staff picks” series, Boston’s Coolidge Corner Theatre is recommending movies to stream at home and pairing them with introductions from their employees, which they’re uploading to YouTube. The Ann Arbor Film Festival, which was slated to take place at the non-profit Michigan Theater, is streaming all of its planned programming online for free. In lieu of its weekly matinee screenings for seniors, Maryland’s Old Greenbelt Theatre is giving them a classic to watch at home, and hosting a free conference call to talk about the film every week.
From the looks of their websites and social feeds, it might seem like these theaters are holding up fine, soldiering on in the face of the pandemic worry-free. But all of them are at serious risk of permanently closing—and all of them are banking on the idea that, after months spent social distancing and self-isolating, people will flood their local movie theaters in droves.
"I do think that this is going to make people value the theatrical experience all the more," Kozberg said. "They’re spaces where challenging and important conversations can happen. They're spaces that bring people together. They're spaces that communities really, really need. After we emerge from temporarily sheltering in place, we'll need them more than ever."
The question is whether independent theaters can survive long enough to still exist by the time the coronavirus crisis ends. Some, especially those that own their buildings and don’t have to pay rent, are optimistic. Others were teetering on the financial brink even before this crisis began, and unless they receive a windfall from the government, which is far from a guarantee, they may not make it through.
"We've been an operating movie theater since 1933. We became a nonprofit in 1989, when the theater was literally saved from demolition by people forming a human chain around the building," Mark Anastasio, the program director at the Coolidge, told VICE. "Keeping this place open will be a priority, even as the world falls down around us."
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