But where Des Moines film fans saw the end of an era, Ben Godar saw the future. As co-founder and director of Des Moines Film, a nonprofit film society, Godar considered the Varsity a perfect location for the kind of movie venue that is proving increasingly popular throughout the country: a two- or three-screen art house, often nonprofit, with a bar and cafe attached, designed to provide local audiences with independent, foreign-language, documentary and Oscar-bound movies that are too small for the multiplex.
A few months after the Varsity shut its doors, Des Moines Film bought the theater, and Godar immediately applied for historical preservation tax credits, which would provide the ballast of the $3 million he intended to raise to offset the purchase, and renovate and upgrade the theater. With the tax credits secured, he prepared to launch a major capital campaign in February 2020.
“And then covid hit,” he said.
Godar was surprisingly upbeat as he showed a recent visitor plans for a second screening room, an elevator, bigger bathrooms and a hip gathering place for filmgoers. “It hasn’t been nearly as disastrous as I thought it was going to be in the early days,” he said of the past 18 months. “In a way, if this had to hit, it hit at an okay time for us, in that we’re still relatively small, I’m our only staff person, and we hadn’t staffed up to operate the theater yet.”
Instead of a capital campaign he intended to announce in 2020, Godar launched a virtual cinema, giving Des Moines viewers a taste of programming to come. He spent most of the year applying for government and foundation grants, and working with architects on the new design. Once Godar got the capital campaign underway earlier this year, the results were encouraging: “Our initial goal was to raise $25,000 in the first five days,” he said, “and we raised over $100,000.” More than 1,000 donors stepped up, many with modest contributions that proved to Godar that the Varsity had a viable constituency. “I’d rather have it go that way and know that we have an audience than to have some high net-worth individual or large foundation write us an enormous check,” he said.
Opening a new movie theater in 2021 might seem counterintuitive. The exhibition business has taken a historic hit over the past year-and-a-half, with theaters going out of business, chains declaring bankruptcy and big multiplexes desperately looking for financial runway to recover from billions in losses. Box office revenue hovers around 70 percent compared with 2019. Attendance — already on a downward slope before the coronavirus pandemic — has done a similar nose dive. The rise of streaming has taken on exponential force, with studios either releasing their films in theaters and on streaming simultaneously or forgoing bricks-and-mortar theaters entirely.
And yet, for a certain sector of the exhibition business, things look, if not blazingly bright, at least cautiously bullish. While not immune to the forces that have affected the greater industry, independent theaters and art houses have managed to weather the challenges of the past year and half, some with startling success. Dozens of small theaters around the country are embarking on expansions, renovations or brand-new openings during the covid era.
In Millerton, N.Y., new owners David Maltby and Chelsea Altman have overhauled the Moviehouse, a three-screen theater serving audiences from Dutchess County to the Berkshires. They renovated the building’s first floor and added a bar, installed an elevator and refurbished the smallest auditorium to create a speakeasy-like “screening lounge.”
In Billings, Mont., the Art House microcinema has installed new sound, projection and seats, and will soon add two screens and a restaurant. Its sister theater, the 720-seat Babcock, is so big that it reopened just a few months into the pandemic with socially distanced screenings of such classics as “Jurassic Park,” “The Goonies” and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In Iowa City, the nonprofit FilmScene had opened a new three-screen venue just six months before the pandemic hit; in 2021, they renovated and reopened their original two-screen location and established an outdoor screening venue in an adjacent public park.
In Washington, the Austin-based chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema — which filed for bankruptcy in March, before being sold — has announced plans to open theaters at Brentwood and National Landing.
And in Brookline, Mass., the Coolidge Corner Theatre has announced plans for a 14,000-square-foot expansion, including two new screens and a community education and engagement center, the result of a $12.5 million capital campaign.
The public-facing component of that campaign was set to launch in early 2020, recalls Coolidge executive director and CEO Katherine Tallman, “and then covid said, ‘Sit down.’ ” Like Godar, Tallman made an immediate pivot, launching a virtual platform, applying for permits for the expansion, weighing in on blueprints and applying for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to keep her administrative staff. And then, she says, donations began to roll in.
“Our donations more than doubled when we were closed,” Tallman says. “We raised over $600,000 from an annual appeal, compared to $180,000 the year before. Almost 50 percent of that was from new donors.” One was a foundation that sent a $50,000 check “with a message to the effect of, ‘You’re going to need this,’ ” Tallman recalls. “We had another that was a yellow piece of paper with a $5 bill stuck on it saying, ‘This is all I could afford, I hope it helps.’ ”
Mark O’Meara, who runs the Cinema Arts and University Mall Theatres in Fairfax, Va., didn’t have the benefit of a huge capital campaign during the pandemic; as a for-profit theater, he needed to seek out different advantages. “Thank God I had two landlords who were very, very, very understanding,” he says. “They’re my heroes. I did pay them a little. I never paid all of [the rent], but I paid them something.” When he was forced to go dark in early 2020, he says, he decided to offer curbside popcorn to his regulars to snack on while they streamed at home. And he applied for PPP and disaster loans. “It reminded me of when we were first married,” he says. “We’d sit at the kitchen table and take each bill and say, ‘We can do this; we can’t do that.’ All winter, we were picking each bill as we could pay it.”
Independent theaters and art houses have never been considered massive moneymakers compared with corporate multiplexes. But they have proved to be uniquely positioned to survive the pandemic. Many of them are nonprofits, meaning they could not only take advantage of government programs such as the PPP loans and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, but they could fundraise from foundations and individuals. In many communities, they serve not just as filmgoing destinations, but as venues for other art forms and vital social hubs.
Although the exhibitors’ trade group the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) has traditionally been associated with big chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark, the organization quickly came to the aid of small and midsize venues applying for government grants like SVOG. “The reason for that is the impact of those theaters,” explains NATO chairman Rolando Rodriguez, chairman, president and CEO of Marcus Theatres. “We as an industry don’t survive by just the top five or six companies. We support Main Street America, and Main Street America can be in Des Moines, Iowa, or Billings, Montana. Everyone is important to our long-term success.”
Ironically, what might have once been a disadvantage for small theaters turned out to be an advantage during covid: Whereas multiplexes traditionally rely on studio ad campaigns that cost tens of millions of dollars, smaller theaters do the marketing themselves, reaching their customers through email lists, newsletters, social media and face-to-face contact.
In other words, smaller theaters had developed an authentic relationship with their audiences, with the result that, when they were forced to shut down in 2020, most of them were able to communicate directly with their patrons and immediately engage them with virtual cinemas, special online programs, podcasts and appeals for donations. When they began to reopen over the summer, they were able to provide the kind of personal assurances and safety measures people needed to feel safe.
The AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Centre reopened in Silver Spring in late May, after receiving state, local and federal grants and some individual donations. The theater found success over the summer with such new releases as “Summer of Soul,” “Roadrunner” and “In the Heights.” But it has done even better with its repertory program, according to programming director Todd Hitchcock. Rereleases of the 1969 erotic thriller “La Piscine” and Fellini’s “8½ ,” as well as more modern classics such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws” and “The Empire Strikes Back” have been the theater’s most popular films, he says, reinforcing its mission as a well-curated repertory house. More recently, the theater was well-attended for the return of its annual Latin American Film Festival and Noir City DC series; Hitchcock is optimistic that the Silent Cinema Showcase, which will run from Oct. 29 through Nov. 23, will do just as well.
“I had a regular patron tell me last summer that he watched more than 100 films last year [on our virtual platform],” Hitchcock says. “Now that he’s been back, he said, ‘I’ve seen 10 since you’ve reopened.’ That’s what he’s here for. He’s here to see movies on the big screen.” Noting that many films on the Silver’s schedule are ones people can see at home via streaming, Hitchcock sees their success as a confirmation of the theater’s core mission. “This is a big part of what we do, and it’s not anything different than what we’ve been doing for decades,” he says. “Ultimately, we’re in the get-out-of-the-house-and-come-to-the-theater-for-a-night-out-and-see-a-film-the-right-way business.”
At a time when most theaters are only realizing 50 percent of their typical revenue, the onset of the delta variant introduced yet another hurdle: Although most theater chains have not instituted vaccination mandates, many art houses have, including the AFI Silver and the Avalon, in northwest D.C. Avalon programming director Andrew Mencher admits he received some negative feedback after introducing the mandate, but the overwhelming feeling was one of support, he says. “We got some nasty phone calls, but what you learn being in this business, or any service business, is that the people who are angry are the ones who are most vocal.”
Then there are the movies themselves: There’s been a dearth of midrange, sophisticated movies that draw traditional “smarthouse” audiences and in a worrying trend, films that once would have played art houses have been going straight to streaming, or opening wide for a few weeks before going to video-on-demand. The result is that the core of the traditional art house business model — specialty films that open small, earn gradual word-of-mouth and play for weeks on end — has been in flux.
Moviehouse co-owner Altman notes that the new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” was a big success for the theater, especially with small groups that booked private screenings in the new lounge. The film’s opening weekend in early October “was also one of the best we’ve had since reopening for general admissions, which goes to prove that film content is critical,” Maltby adds. “We need to see more bigger-name movies come out that are only available theatrically.” Two films he was “cautiously optimistic” about are the Oct. 22 debut of Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and the Nov. 2 release of Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals.”
Mencher says that “No Time to Die” was similarly successful for the Avalon, but he’s “still waiting to see some health in the art market. . . . whether ‘The French Dispatch’ will kick it up a notch, or ‘Belfast’ or ‘Spencer’ or ‘Julia,’ we just don’t know. I think a surer bet for a theater like ours right now is probably to toe closer to the commercial line. ‘King Richard’ and ‘West Side Story’ are the kinds of movies we’ll be looking for right now.”
Even with strong awards-season titles on the horizon, Mencher remains cautious. “Will the delta variant push more breakthrough infections?” he asks. “Will we have another variant? The industry seems to be fundamentally changed as well, with streaming becoming such a huge part of how movies are going to be initially played [and] the windows we used to enjoy [not] coming back. What is the appetite of moviegoers going to be with all these different challenges? It seems like it’s a long way to something that resembles the normal business.”
Still, there are those who cling to the fact that a long way doesn’t mean never. Back in Des Moines, a group gathered for a fundraiser at the Varsity, where Godar led tours and where film society members shared stories of the theater in its heyday. (The theater is just over two-thirds of the way to its $3 million goal; Godar anticipates reopening in the spring of 2022.)
Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy — who had helped secure public funding — recalled a childhood matinee of the “Sound of Music” when he learned that “if you put a melting Hershey bar on the floor, it would get hard again.” (Yes, it was wrapped.) Capital campaign co-chair Loretta Sieman remembered getting her first kiss — from her now-husband — in the aisle. “Someone asked me what movie it was. Who cares? It was my first kiss!”
“There are so memories in this building,” says Des Moines Film board secretary Debra Kurtz. “The great movies I saw, the great conversations I had afterward, the popcorn. This is about bringing back that sense of community, sitting in a theater with a roomful of strangers and having that silver beam come on the screen. It’s magical.”