Independent Movie Theaters Across the Country Brace for the Worst

Theater owners say COVID-19 poses the biggest challenge since 9/11. Some worry they’re facing a breaking point for theatrical distribution entirely. Photo: Getty Images

“I’ve been in the business all my life,” says Los Angeles independent theater owner Lance Alspaugh. “The earthquake in California in ’94 was pretty bad. The [1993] riots in California, that was pretty bad. You had 9/11, that was pretty bad for movie theaters. But this is probably the biggest challenge.”

It’s not hard to believe him. In the space of barely two weeks, COVID-19 has basically shut down the film industry. Production on films and television shows has ceased. Major movies have been postponed, some indefinitely. And after enacting deep cleaning, crowd reduction, and social distancing measures, theaters across the country, some on the orders of local governments and some of their own accord, have closed their doors altogether. “This accelerated only within the last couple weeks,” says Charles Coleman, film program director for Chicago’s Facets Cinematheque, “and this is actually something that, as they say in nautical terms, started gaining all deliberate speed.”

None of the theater owners made the decision lightly. Theatrical exhibition is already a precarious business, with even the megaplex megachains’ bottom lines dependent on the performance of a handful of reliable tentpoles; independent theaters, many of them offering up a more eclectic program of indies, art films, foreign pictures, and retrospective programming, run on razor-thin margins.

So they looked to one another. “My initial plan after speaking with other film heads, other cinemas in the city, all the independents, was that we were all going to take our cue from the city,” explains Gina Duncan, VP of film and strategic programming at Brooklyn Academy of Music. “But as you know, the city and the state were moving slower, the government was moving a bit slower, so we ended up having to make the decision in advance of that, for the safety of our audience and the safety of our staff.”

The conversations those theater owners and managers were having — many via networks established by the independent cinema association Art House Convergence — were empowering. “We started to just exchange ideas,” Coleman explains, “and then we realized everybody is suffering the same fate, which actually becomes the way tribes start to realize they need to protect themselves together, as opposed to looking for who is greater than whom.”

Ryan Oestreich, general manager of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, agrees. Though his city’s government had not yet called on the theaters to close their doors, theater owners and managers in Illinois were “seeing what New York and L.A. were doing, talking to our Art House Convergence affiliates and peers, understanding that they are trying to flatten this curve. So if we are trying to flatten this curve then let’s all be stewards and do it together. We don’t need to be forced; we’re just going to close down.”

But none of them harbor any illusions about the choppy waters ahead. “I’m in a different position than some of the smaller screens or other places that are just completely independent,” Duncan notes, as BAM is a not-for-profit entity. “But just like them, we rely on ticket sales and fundraising, and both of those things are hard to do right now.”

So how will the theaters weather this storm? “Well, we’ve got to be nimble,” Oestreich says. “We’ve got to figure out how to not spend a lot of money, or look at our budget and see what expenditures we had budgeted for the year, and maybe put off repairing something,” which is no easy task with the Music Box, a 90-year-old venue. “And so what I’m doing right now is, I’m re-budgeting and re-forecasting to see how long we can last with a closure.” At Facets, Coleman is taking a similar approach: “We’re going to reset on a number of things bureaucratically, in terms of our terminal operations.”

There’s only so much they can accomplish with budgeting ingenuity. “There are bills that will come that have to be paid,” Oestreich says. “You’ve got to pay your rent, you’ve got to pay your electricity, your garbage, your electric, you’ve got to pay your taxes … and you’ve got to pay your staff.”

That’s proving a difficult proposition for these small theaters, with overhead to cover and nothing coming into the box office. At Alspaugh’s theaters in Los Angeles, which include the Vista and the Los Feliz 3, he’s working out strategies to stagger pay periods, provide vacation pay (“even those that have not accrued totally”), or worst-case scenario, let people go so they can apply for unemployment, though “we don’t really want to terminate anyone.”

“I know some places are laying them off or furloughing them,” Oestreich says. “We’re trying to pay them. Basically coming up with odds and ends projects that we can give them, and also a onetime paid leave just so that they’re not completely strapped by this situation that is beyond their control.” Coleman says Facets is also trying to devise “a suggested projects list for the store staff” so they don’t have to lay off part-time employees, and “we’re going to have to do some adjustment on the hours, we’re going to try to keep it within reasonable boundaries. No one will be laid off in the meanwhile.”

But not every venue has that kind of flexibility. “The cinema staff who work the box office and concessions, and tear the tickets, my projectionists, all the cinema managers — they can’t work from home. That’s not there for them,” Duncan says. “So right now, they’re home. I’m feeling for them because their ability to make money during this time is really cut off.” Out of concern for those employees, a handful of New York–based filmmakers, programmers, and journalists started talking on Twitter “about how cinemas needed to shut down as a safety measure, for public health, but this would also mean hourly workers at those theaters would pay an immediate price, effectively losing their jobs overnight,” explains filmmaker and archivist Sierra Pettengill. “So we felt the need to act quickly, in solidarity.”

They set up the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, a GoFundMe to provide immediate assistance to those employees. “By Monday morning, we had raised enough to guarantee a $200 payment to the first 150 people who applied, and that will be sent to each person directly using information they submitted to us,” Pettengill says. “Now, we’ve raised our fundraising target to $62,000, which will allow us to give the same amount to another batch of 150 who have applied and are waiting.”

Meanwhile, the theaters have to figure out how to stay afloat during closures that will certainly last weeks, if not months. Author and podcaster Karina Longworth suggested buying gift cards “to the places you would be frequenting if you weren’t at home.” Supporters of not-for-profit theaters like BAM and Facets can also make donations or buy memberships, which will get them discounted tickets once those venues are back up and running — “and if they don’t need it,” Duncan advises, “gift it to someone.” Facets also offers a disc (and videotape!) by-mail rental service, and has done so since well before Netflix’s red envelopes. The theater sells movies online, as well.

But the most important step supporters of these venues can take is the simplest. “They can return once the ban is lifted,” Alspaugh says. Some have worried that we’re facing a breaking point for theatrical distribution, and one potentially exacerbated by the decision of some studios to explode the standard theatrical-to-home windows and head straight to streaming or on-demand services. “I’m not surprised that that is happening,” Alspaugh says. “I do not think that it’s going to have a long-term impact on people not wanting to see movies — especially a certain type of movie — in a movie theater.”

Yet it’s entirely possible that weeks or months of all-streaming entertainment could have the opposite effect. “Maybe I’m optimistic,” Duncan says, “but listen, you’re going to want to get out of your house again. I’m hoping that this entire experience just leads people to say, ‘You know what? That was enough. I still need the social interactions. I still need to be in a cinema with other people.’”

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Indie Movie Theaters Across the Country Brace for the Worst