Several weeks into a shutdown that has led some exhibitors to contemplate bankruptcy while others simply go dark and wait for the doors to open, it’s the little guys who are proving to be creative, resilient and responsive enough to survive the crisis — and maybe even thrive.
With big and small venues alike being forced to furlough staff, navigate cumbersome bureaucracies and endure frustrating encounters with banks, landlords and creditors — with no guarantee that such efforts will be enough to keep them in the black — it’s much too early to talk about silver linings. But throughout the country, art houses, independent theaters and microcinemas — the places local audiences count on to show what’s new in low-budget, foreign language, documentary or experimental film — have made quick and creative pivots, becoming digital-cinema outlets, virtual education spaces and community hubs at a time when their patrons need them most.
When Washington theaters were forced to close in mid-March, Avalon programming director Andrew Mencher wasted no time figuring out a workaround. A terrific little movie called “Saint Frances” had opened on Friday the 13th and played for one day before the theater went dark; the following week, Mencher had worked out a way for his patrons to access a digital link to the film on the Avalon’s website, splitting the ticket proceeds 50-50 with Oscilloscope, the film’s distributor. He wound up selling 1,100 virtual tickets over the film’s five-week run, mostly to the 10,000 people who are on the theater’s mailing list. In other words, “Saint Frances” did well — although, as Mencher notes, “‘well’ still means a fraction of what a movie could do in theaters.”
Several other local theaters have gotten into the virtual-cinema game, including the AFI Silver, the Miracle Theatre and the Cinema Arts and University Mall Theatres in Fairfax, where owner Mark O’Meara has been selling up to 75 large tubs of hot, salty concession-stand popcorn a day as a curbside service. Some movies are even becoming modest hits. The Brazilian political thriller “Bacurau” sold 100 virtual tickets during its first week at the Suns Cinema in Mount Pleasant, the equivalent of almost three sold-out houses for the tiny dive bar/screening room. “Fantastic Fungi,” a gorgeously photographed documentary about psychedelic mushrooms, is “the film that keeps going and is our second best-selling film since we opened in 2017,” according to Sandra Gibson, executive director of the Maryland Film Festival and Baltimore’s Parkway Theatre. The programming team at AFI Silver has launched a long-planned podcast, Silver Streams, to help bolster the emails, social media posts and website updates they were already using to keep their audience connected. “All of that’s incredibly valuable now because it’s our only means of communicating,” says the AFI Silver programming director Todd Hitchcock. “There’s no walk-up aspect to it right now.”
Many art-house theaters are nonprofit, meaning they’re able to raise funds through grants, individual donations and memberships. But ticket sales still account for between 50 and 60 percent of their total revenue, according to Alison Kozberg, managing director of the industry association Art House Convergence. As nimble as these theaters have been in giving their audiences something to watch, it isn’t just about the money. It’s about maintaining relationships that they have spent years, often decades, cultivating. (AMC Theatres is also offering streaming titles but, aside from the big-studio digital release “Trolls World Tour,” they’re for movies that have already opened theatrically.)
“The biggest incentive for us to do virtual streaming is mission and community,” says Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass., just outside of Boston. “The revenue potential is minor, especially relative to what we would make exhibiting a first-run film in a 400-seat house. But it keeps the audience — cinephiles who want to see new independent film — connected. We offer ‘staff picks’ — favorite films introduced by staff members — for the same reason.” (The theater just announced “Coolidge Curates,” a limited-time offer whereby, for $10, the staff will choose a personalized list of three movies recommended for streaming.)
So far, the Coolidge’s most successful coronavirus-era coup has been offering weekly film seminars online: For $10, viewers are sent a link to a prerecorded introduction from a local scholar or critic, then they access the movie on their own and convene afterward on Zoom for a discussion with the lecturer. The first title, “Rear Window,” drew more than 200 viewers — far more people than could have been accommodated in the 45-seat auditorium where these events usually take place. Tallman says “it’s a real hidden opportunity, and we’ll likely keep doing this long after we reopen.”
Like Mencher, O’Meara and Gibson, Tallman has spent years getting to know the people who come to her theater — anticipating their tastes, predicting their dislikes and curating films accordingly. In fact, it’s that feeling of being seen, heard and catered to that keeps loyal customers coming back, and that makes small theaters essential elements of their cultural ecosystems. (When the Avalon began offering digital links to “The Booksellers,” about antiquarian book dealers, for example, they made sure to cross-promote with Politics and Prose just down the street. The Coolidge frequently collaborates on events with its neighbor, Brookline Booksmith.)
Maintaining high levels of responsiveness and mutual understanding defines the business model for small theaters — many of them nonprofits — whose roles as cultural centers and convening spaces transcend mere content delivery. Kozberg notes that several theaters around the country have expanded their roles far beyond film programming. “At the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, New York, the director of development partnered with a local nonprofit to deliver digital literacy classes to some of their seniors,” she says. “Now they’re doing follow-up work, calling people on the phone just to check in on them.”
“One of the things we have to remember about these theaters is that they are part of their communities,” says Criterion Collection president Peter Becker, who, with CEO Jonathan Turell, initiated the Art-House America Campaign to provide emergency assistance to the more than 200 art houses that have been forced to shutter. (Becker and Turell are also partners in Janus Films, which distributes repertory classics.) Earlier this month, the campaign had raised $370,000 from 3,000 donors and had disbursed small grants to 52 theaters; another traunch of more than $180,000 is expected to be distributed within a few weeks.
Of course, the big theater chains have their own problems: On Wednesday, AMC was sued by a Florida landlord, who accused the chain of not paying rent. But there’s little doubt that corporate multiplexes also have some advantages in size, volume and available funds. In a recent study conducted by Art House Convergence and SMU DataArts, the median amount of operating capital reported by surveyed theaters was 56 days, compared with the four- to six-month cushion that reportedly helps insulate many chains. Even creative side hustles such as digital releases and curbside popcorn “are relatively modest hedges against what is a major blow,” Becker says. Still, “These theaters, because they’re mission-driven, have a loyalty and a buy-in and an impact in their communities that will be a strength in their struggle to survive.”
Indeed, smaller theaters are proving to be in a far superior position to unlock audience value that big multiplexes have either taken for granted or disregarded entirely.
“I can’t tell you who the manager or assistant manager is at my local AMC, but at my local Alamo Drafthouse, I could,” says Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. Whereas that one-on-one contact might not have been important to average multiplex patrons in the past, he adds, it will take on new meaning when theaters begin to reopen with new social distancing and disinfecting protocols in place.
“I would trust my neighborhood theater more, because they’re more open and honest about communication,” he says. “They’re very transparent, especially on social media, where they talk about just about everything. Whereas AMC might issue a big blanket corporate statement that a lot of people don’t trust or understand. . . . I think indies have a really good opportunity here to connect to their true audiences and probably in the long run have a better chance to sustain.”
Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, has been on a mission in recent years to encourage theaters of all sizes to improve their data collection on their audiences, the better to customize their marketing and garner additional revenue through direct advertising. When Bernard signed up for a loyalty program at a major chain, he says, he asked the theater employee if he could fill out a form letting the theater know what kinds of movies he liked so they could push notifications to him. “She said, ‘No, but you get free popcorn on your birthday.’ ”
Art houses have been more proactive about reaching out to their communities, Bernard says, but they should take this time to refine those efforts even more. “There are people who like Almodóvar movies and people who like American-indie Sundance movies,” he says. “They need to let those customers know what’s coming. And if I have an Almodóvar movie coming out on Friday, I would pay you to send emails out to those fans on Tuesday.”
For her part, Gibson says she intends to treat this period like a ‘gap year,’ during which she can learn more about the Parkway’s regular patrons and new online viewers, the better to grow the theater’s core audience beyond the festival that takes place there every spring.
Although Gibson had already started conducting feedback sessions before the shutdown, she says, the hiatus gives her more bandwidth to dig even deeper into “their demographics, likes, dislikes, needs, dreams and more.”
“For those of us with large in-person, walk-up ticket buyers, this is the opportunity, given that regular protocols and practices are being stretched, interrogated or completely suspended, to collect data and learn more about our audiences,” she continues. “I always say, you never want to waste a good crisis.”