On the edge of their seats | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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On the edge of their seats

Chicago’s independent movie theaters get creative to stay alive during the pandemic.

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The Music Box is the only independent theater currently operating in its physical space. - ARI NEIDITZ
  • Ari Neiditz
  • The Music Box is the only independent theater currently operating in its physical space.

Ask a local movie theater general manager about the last four months, and you’ll get a sigh.

“It’s been incredibly hard,” says Music Box Theatre general manager and director of finance Ryan Oestreich. “When you remove that one single thing you can do—which is to bring a customer into your business—your entire business falls apart.”

The Southport movie palace is the only locally owned, independent theater that has reopened at limited capacity with mask requirements for guests and employees, socially distanced seating, and updated cleaning protocols. Others—including Logan Theatre, Facets, Gene Siskel Film Center, and the New 400 Theaters—have remained closed. Though the Davis Theater reopened on July 3, it closed its doors again, pivoting to hosting mini movie drive-in pop-ups in a nearby lot.

“We didn’t have strong foot traffic at all,” says Davis Theater co-owner Ben Munro of the Lincoln Square cinema’s short reopen. “It’s going to take new content to pull people out to theaters like ours in any sort of real capacities.”

A portion of local theaters were known as much for screening independent movies (Cold War, Uncut Gems), classics (Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm, Goodfellas), and midnight movies (Mandy, The Room) as they were for blockbusters. However, Davis, Logan, and the New 400 are waiting for blockbuster titles like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. The date for those two films keeps getting pushed further down the calendar, from mid-July to late July to mid-August to now being indefinitely delayed.

“When new releases happen, we’ll focus on those dates with hopes to reopen,” Logan Theatre’s director of marketing and events Jennifer Zacarias says. “When we see a new release date announcement, it’s kind of like hurry up and wait. You get excited at the possibility of opening up with some fresh, new content to welcome back the community. You start to physically prepare the venue and mentally prepare yourself. Then, we get the message about the delay, and it’s like, ‘OK, sure, I guess we’ll wait again.’”

Multiplex chains within the city—AMC Theatres, ArcLight Cinemas, Cinemark, Landmark Theatres, and Regal Cinemas—have all moved reopening dates back, too. Though AMC announced last week it would open some locations in mid-to-late August, other chains are keeping plans even less specific.

As these chains move in line with studios, smaller theaters in Chicago have to get creative to bring in any sort of revenue in the interim. Logan, Davis, and Harper theaters offer pickup concessions. Last week, the New 400 opened its patio, which can serve concessions to up to 14 patrons. Scott Holtz, the newly hired general manager of the New 400, says auditoriums in his theater are so small that it doesn’t make sense to reopen now.

“With capacity limitations, in my biggest auditorium, which seats 150 guests, I can put 25 people in there,” Holtz says. “That doesn’t even really pay for the movie.”

In addition to patio service, the New 400 is renting out theaters for private parties with social distancing and new cleaning protocols in place.

“There are things that are just fast things for revenue,” Holtz says. “We’re looking for what we can do to get some life going, but I’m not expecting a lot right now.”

One successful pivot for Davis Theater was the move to pop-up drive-in movies in the Lincoln Yards lot off West Wabansia—most of which, including last weekend’s partnership with Facets to screen the Will Forte comedy Extra Ordinary, have sold out.

“We don’t have a problem selling out our drive-ins,” Munro says. “It’s been a superfun experience, and we take that additional step of social distancing. The feedback we have gotten from guests identifies the extra steps we’re taking as a team to give that safer, outdoor experience—to go above and beyond to make sure people know we’re working to keep them safe while they’re there.”

The charm of a drive-in experience is working for now, but Munro decided against offering new releases through a virtual cinema platform.

“We didn’t want to get into a world that’s competing with all the streaming giants,” Munro says. “We wanted to focus on things we could do immediately.”

Those theaters offering virtual cinema screenings—Logan, Facets, Gene Siskel Film Center, and Music Box—have seen a varied response from customers. Even if a movie does well for a local theater through this avenue, the revenue doesn’t match what the theater was getting at the box office.

“Everything has been flipped,” says Siskel Film Center executive director Jean de St. Aubin. “We used to keep track of the box office reports and attendance, but now, it’s the distributors who have that information. It’s taking four to seven weeks to see the results of each film.”

Music Box began its virtual cinema at the beginning of the pandemic and still offers certain titles online. “Good” sales for the theater are 25 percent of what Oestreich saw in normal ticket sales.

“We were doing good numbers, but it wasn’t enough,” Oestreich says. “Everybody at home has cable, Netflix, Hulu, and the Criterion Channel . . . I have to cut through all that noise, then I’m asking you to fork out $12 to watch one of my movies.”

Facets also dove headfirst into virtual cinema in mid-March.

“Back in March, jumping into the virtual cinema world was like the wild, wild west,” says Facets executive director Karen Cardarelli. “We were quickly in survival mode, and we had to learn how to quickly work together, remotely, then think about innovation.”

Key to Facets’s innovation was directing all youth summer filmmaking camps to online avenues. The organization’s Chicago International Children’s Film Festival will also move online in the fall. The difficulty for Cardarelli was that she had just arrived in the leadership role at the theater, working full-time for only a month before closing due to the pandemic. Her plans of giving Facets a facelift to bring in more guests quickly shifted.

“The week before we had to shut down, I had just had my first board meeting,” Cardarelli says. “There I was selling my ideas for in-person engagement. The next week, everyone had to go home. That vision is still there, but we’re learning what our audiences need and finding ways we can meet them and engage with them.”

What makes the process of staying afloat during the pandemic more difficult is how each theater has had to dramatically cut staff. Facets cut 20 percent of its expenses. Cardarelli says she is bracing herself “to go a little bit deeper,” but hasn’t had to eliminate full-time staff. At the Logan Theatre, more than 20 part-time employees were let go. Music Box cut 80 percent of its staff. Siskel Film Center furloughed all of its part-time staff, leaving only five full-time staffers.

“A lot of the things we’re doing right now—tightening our belt and workforce reduction—are all moves to make us sustainable to weather this storm,” St. Aubin says. “A year from now, things may look different, but we’ll still be here.”

Most local theaters are optimistic about the future. Venue operators are hopeful that with a vaccine or some pandemic solution doors can reopen. Until then, those same general managers aren’t sure that audiences want to return to theater seats now.

“I think people are really waiting,” St. Aubin says. “The most important thing is your health. I would never want to jeopardize that or make it take longer for us to get over this hump.”

At the Music Box, Oestreich knows a lot of people aren’t ready to come back, and he’s OK with those who don’t feel comfortable going to a movie theater right now. However, seeing the response from his audience, through surveys and selling out 50 seats of repertory screenings of 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he thinks some people do want that experience.

“It’s household by household,” Oestreich says. “It has to do with how comfortable people are about going out in general. If you live in a complex down the street from us, and it’s a short walk, and you know the precautions we’re taking, you might be more comfortable. Just being in a theater and seeing a movie on the big screen might be enough of a thing where you’re escaping this ridiculous world we’re all living in right now. If I can give somebody that respite in their lives, that’s great. I hope all of my fellow businesses, citizens, neighbors and peers take this seriously, and we don’t go backwards. I don’t want to have to close the Music Box. Let me limp along and figure out a way to survive, and at some point, we’ll get to a better place.”

When is your Chicago movie theater reopening? Most aren’t anytime soon. Here is a quick look at how chains and locally owned cinemas are dealing with reopening during the pandemic.

AMC Theatres
The largest movie theater chain in the United States has moved its reopening date from the end of July to mid-to-late August, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

ArcLight Cinemas
Locations of this chain remain temporarily closed without a reopening date or procedures set.

Chicago Filmmakers
The nonprofit that had just moved into a renovated firehouse on Ridge Avenue had to shut its doors on March 12, the first day of the Onion City Experimental Film Festival.

“That day was a burgeoning sort of reality,” says executive director Brenda Webb. “We thought, ‘Is this really happening?’ It was too frightening, and we closed down.”

Festival screenings as well as classes were quickly moved online. New programs were also created, including community conversations with filmmakers that the organization hadn’t previously had access to. As Chicago Filmmakers pivoted into the virtual world, the organization had to move away from its future, strategic planning into focusing on how to survive this year.

“We were determined from the very beginning to not sit this out,” Webb says. “Not surviving isn’t an option. It’s going to be tough times, but I think we’ll be OK. We have to adapt.”

Cinemark Theatres
Though a few locations remain open in Texas and Florida, the majority of this chain’s multiplexes are still closed. A phased reopening is planned, but dates have been shifted, and a specific date for Chicagoland theaters has not been announced.

Davis Theater
The Lincoln Square movie palace tried to reopen with limited showtimes in early July with updated social distancing and cleaning guidelines. However, without new movies, Davis Theater co-owner Ben Munro says it was easier to close the cinema down again.

As far as re-reopening, Munro says the Davis “will align itself with the national, larger movie chains that have decided to stay shuttered until there’s a new movie to play.”

Instead, the Davis has run “micro, pop-up” drive-in movie events in the Lincoln Yards Lot, located at West Wabansia Avenue. In addition, the theater has reopened its Carbon Arc bar/restaurant as well as sold concessions for pickup for those wanting an at-home-type theater experience.

Facets
After the independent cinema closed down in mid-March, Facets immediately dove “head-first” into offering titles through its virtual cinema, executive director Karen Cardarelli says.

Last weekend, Facets partnered with Davis Theater for a pop-up drive-in movie experience, selling out three screenings of the 2019 Will Forte-starring comedy Extra Ordinary.

COURTESY BEN MUNRO
  • courtesy Ben Munro

Cardarelli is unsure of when Facets can reopen. However, she has reason to be optimistic, seeing an uptick in membership in Facets’s movie-by-mail rental service and successful youth summer programming.

Gene Siskel Film Center
With capacity rules in effect, executive director Jean de St. Aubin said the downtown theater can’t reopen. Still, the Siskel Film Center began offering films through a virtual cinema program and hosted filmmaker conversations for its audiences.

The four-month period has been heartbreaking, with cuts to staff and no reopening plans set, but the organization is committed to weathering the storm.

“A year from now, things may look different, but we’ll still be here,” St. Aubin says.

Harper Theater
The historic Hyde Park movie theater closed at the top of the pandemic and has yet to announce a reopening date. As of now, concessions are available for curbside pick-up during limited hours.

Landmark Theatres
Locations of this chain—which include the Century Centre Cinema and Renaissance Place Cinema, both in Chicago—remain temporarily closed without a reopening date or procedures set.

The Logan Theatre
Like other local, independent movie theaters, the Logan is offering virtual cinema programming. While the streaming experience doesn’t bring in the same box office receipts, director of marketing and events Jennifer Zacarias says Logan has benefited from customers ordering and picking up concessions. The theater has also kept running its popular trivia nights virtually and started live gaming events with C2E2.

Until new movies are actually released, reopening plans have not been solidified. Even if the theater could reopen with repertory screenings, managers and staff are trying to be smart.

“There are so many pieces that need to happen and what you need to do before unlocking that door,” Zacarias says. “That changes on a daily basis.”

Music Box Theatre
The lone independent movie theater that reopened on July 3 and stayed opened, Music Box is offering select repertory and newer titles in its auditoriums. Masks are required, and new safety procedures are available on the theater’s website. The main theater can seat 50 patrons, and the smaller room seats 18. Music Box is also offering titles through its virtual cinema.

Though general manager Ryan Oestreich has been able to bring audiences back, the amount of revenue isn’t the same. Is it sustainable?

“It’s breaking even,” Oestreich says. “As long as we keep seeing the numbers we’re seeing, if we can keep doing all of those things, we can break even and maybe make a little bit of money and just survive.”

The New 400 Theaters
With newly hired general manager, Scott Holtz, the North Sheridan Road movie theater has opened its patio, offering concessions and drinks in a socially distanced setting. With capacity limits and no new movies, Holtz says it doesn’t make sense to reopen. Until newer titles are released, Holtz said he is renting out theaters for parties to smaller-sized groups.

“We’re looking for things we can do, fast things for revenue, to get some life going,” Holtz said, “but I’m not expecting a lot right now.”

Regal Cinemas
Another large theater chain that relies on new content, Regal Cinemas also moved its reopening date from the end of July. A new date will be announced soon, according to the theater’s website.

Showplace Icon Theatre
According to its website, this cinema is closed until further notice.

Studio Movie Grill
Though some locations of this dine-in chain have reopened in Texas and Florida, most Studio Movie Grills—including Chatham, Illinois 14-screen multiplex—have remained closed. Overall, the chain is implementing a phased reopening approach with 50 percent capacity, plus new sanitizing and social distancing procedures.   v

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