Seattle's indie movie theater scene hangs on by a reel
Among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic are independent movie theaters.
“We were just flat out closed. Nobody. Nothing” said Jeff Brien, managing partner at Faraway Entertainment. They operate eight theaters in western Washington, including the Admiral in West Seattle and Varsity in the University District.
Except for a few weeks in June, movie theaters are been shut down since March with little or no revenue, and they’re running on fumes.
Justin Pritchett, the new managing director of the Ark Lodge Cinema in Columbia City said, “The clock has run out. We're depending on (rent) moratorium to allow us to stay in house a little longer.”
Kate Spitzer, co-owner of the Central Cinema, said each month they’re going deeper in debt. How long can they hang on? “We haven't let ourselves go there yet."
Despite the dire circumstances, independent movie theaters are showing grit and creativity.
Go their websites, and you’ll see they’re all trying to stay connected with their past and future patrons.
The Beacon Cinema in Columbia City is renting out the entire facility to groups of up to 12.
Nearby on Rainier Avenue South, the Ark Lodge Cinema's GoFundMe campaign with T-shirts that say "Stay Safe in the 98118!” has raised over $60,000 to pay bills.
Pritchett said they also opened the movie concession stand to the street. “You come to the concession stand, get your popcorn, go home and watch your movie.”
Independent movie theaters vary widely. Most run an eclectic program. Some like the Majestic Bay in Ballard and Admiral play first-run movies. The Northwest Film Forum has a schedule of classes and workshops on filmmaking.
Some independent theaters are big.
SIFF Cinemas has five screens including the 500-seat Egyptian on Capitol Hill. Each year they run the Seattle International Film Festival, one of the biggest in the world. SIFF has had to cut full and part-time staff to 10, down from 200.
Then there’s the tiny Grand Illusion Cinema in University District with just 70 seats.
“Imagine your usual theater, we're more like the size of their lobby,” Manager Brian Alter said.
Alter is a volunteer. In fact everyone at the Grand Illusion is a volunteer so they don’t have staff costs, but it still costs money to maintain an empty theater.
For the nonprofit independent theaters grants, government relief, and membership have all helped pay the bills. The Grand Illusion is running a virtual theater, hosting screenings on line and splitting the revenue with the film distributor.
The Northwest Film Forum is also going online with screenings and workshops.
“We're reaching fewer people in the virtual space than the number of people who have come through our physical space," said Vivian Hua, executive director. "But the engagement on film festivals specifically is a lot deeper.”
People who may have come to a single film in a festival when the Northwest Film Forum was open are now paying to see the entire festival online and watching movies.
No one knows when movie theaters will open again. As enclosed spaces packed with people, they’re ideal for the spread of coronavirus. And even when theaters do open, said Aaron Alhadeff, president of the Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard, “I'm aware some people will choose to stay home”.
The Majestic Bay was closed for its 20th birthday in October. The only other time the theater closed was on 9/11.
In the late 1920s, Alhadeff's great-grandfather founded Longacres horse racing track. When the family sold the racetrack, they wanted to continue business with the public so they bought the Bay Theater in Ballard.
Alhadeff said the UCLA Film Library called eight-decade old building the longest ongoing motion picture house west of the Mississippi. But the aging theater proved too difficult to renovate so it was razed and a modern three theater complex constructed in its place. Alhadeff said because they own the building, he knows they can hold on during the pandemic.
We still want movies so we’re using streaming services. So are we learning how NOT to go to a movie theater? Independent movie theater operators said they believe people will return because the cinema experience cannot be replaced.
Beth Barrett, artistic director at SIFF theaters, said, “There's something about sitting in a movie theater with a lot of other people, which I know sounds so weird right now like being in a place with a lot of other people, but jokes are funnier. Jump cuts are scarier. Thrillers are exciting.”
Despite the setbacks, independent movie theater operators are taking a deep breath and holding on.
Vivian Hwa with NW Film Forum said their budget for 2021 takes into account the possibility of being closed for years.
“I think we'll be okay as an organization,” she said with a nervous laugh.
Kate Spitzer with the Central Cinema said they've been through tough times in the past. “We’re too stubborn and gritty to give up,” she said.
And Jeff Brien of Admiral Theater, said, “Buy the large popcorn when you get back in the theaters, will you?”
Help may be on the way. Part of Congress’s $900 billion Covid-19 relief package is the Save Our Stages Act. It includes $15 billion in relief to independent movie theaters and cultural organizations.