The challenges involved in operating a traditional movie theater in the age of streaming have only increased over time, but it's especially scary these days. The coronavirus pandemic has caused theaters to go dark all across the nation, and at this point there's no telling how long it will last. Those closures have only added more stress to the already precarious state of the industry.
Slowly but surely, film studios have been shifting their current theatrical releases to digital rental and On Demand services. But with studios finding a way to still earn some money on their films, what about the theaters themselves? Mega chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have, for now, shut the doors on their locations nationwide, but many independent theaters don't have the resources of those corporations to sustain a prolonged closure.
Worry over the future of the movie theater industry has inspired a number of passionate public tributes and appreciations from film lovers recently, including a widely-shared article in the Washington Post by "Dunkirk" and "The Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan, a vocal long-time champion of the theatrical experience. In the piece, Nolan writes about how the true appeal of going to the movies comes from our desire to be together: "humanity's greatest instinct." And the need for that communal experience is the real reason movie theaters will never go away, so long as they're provided the means to weather this current storm.
Even with the shutdown, there's still plenty of ways to support Rochester's own vibrant community of independent and repertory movie theaters, many of which will be facing a potentially difficult road ahead. Rochester has always been a film town and it's up to us to ensure that remains true well into the future.
Back on March 14, The Little Theatre (which is owned by CITY Newspaper's parent company, WXXI Public Media) became the first theater to make the difficult decision to close locally, and since then has had to postpone or cancel a diverse slate of events, including its annual One Take Documentary Film Festival. As a result, the theater is finding innovative ways to offset some of the financial loss and spur some revenue during the temporary closure.
Joining a growing number of art house theaters across the country, The Little has partnered with indie film distributor Kino Lorber to offer virtual screenings of the Cannes Jury Prize-winning Brazlian film "Bacurau," directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho.
The Little was one of the first batch of 11 theaters in the country to participate in this program, says Scott Pukos, public relations coordinator for The Little. "I feel it really is a groundbreaking way for distributors and independent theaters to team up and do some good in an awful situation," he says. "I hope more distributors follow Kino Lorber's lead."
Viewers can buy a five-day pass to access the film for $12, with a portion of each purchase going directly to the Little. "Bacurau" premiered locally at Anomaly — The Rochester Genre Film Festival (full disclosure: I'm a co-founder of the festival and act as its programming director), and this Thursday evening, March 26, The Little and Anomaly will host a virtual group discussion about the film that anyone can join. And more virtual movie options from The Little may be on the way.
Supporting the theater employees during this period is a "major priority" for The Little and WXXI, Pukos says. "For the first week and most likely the second week of our closure, all full-time, part-time, and casual staff members will be paid for the shifts they would have had," he says. "The longer we're closed, the more challenging this will be. The leadership in our organization is exploring every possibility to ensure all staff are paid during this unpredictable and difficult time. That's not to say it's guaranteed, because there is so much unpredictability around this situation."
Pukos recommends giving support by becoming a Little member (or giving a gift membership) or visiting the online Little Shop to purchase a gift certificate, dinner-and-a-movie package, or a five-pack of tickets. He also suggests leaving a positive Yelp, Google, or Facebook review for The Little (also a good idea for any other small businesses you wish to support). Visit thelittle.org.
Having opened in 1914, The Cinema Theater is Rochester's oldest movie theater, but is now facing its own hardships. Without any revenue coming in, making rent is a real worry for the theater, co-owner Audrey Kramer says. Helpfully, the theater employs minimal staff: aside from Kramer and her husband Alex, the Cinema only has three part-time employees who have been able to make do through their other places of employment.
"We're pretty depressed about everything," Kramer says. But there is reason to have hope: "Our patrons are already being very supportive, and we'll cherish them more."
She says that the best way to support The Cinema is by purchasing its movie pass booklets online. The theater offers two options: 10 movie passes and two concession coupons for $55, or five passes and one concession coupon for $30. Donations are always accepted and appreciated, and can also be made online for any amount. More info at cinemarochester.com.
Though The Dryden Theatre itself was already scheduled to be closed during its in-progress construction project to relocate and redesign the main entrance to the Eastman Museum, response to the coronavirus pandemic has forced the rest of the museum to temporarily close as well.
Eastman Museum's Public Relations Manager Kellie Fraver says that the closure has naturally had an impact, but she admits this is "uncharted territory for the museum." And while a number of events have been cancelled through the spring, as of now plans are still in place for the museum to reopen in time for the 6th annual Nitrate Picture Show, June 4-7.
"We are hoping we're not going to have to delay [the Nitrate Picture Show]," says Eastman Museum Director Bruce Barnes. "But if we do have to delay it by a year — or rather shift the program by one year — we'll probably give people two choices. We would be thrilled if they would donate it to the museum, or they can use that ticket for next year's festival."
In the meantime, Barnes says that every effort has been made to support the museum's full and part-time staff during the closure. "Employees are being paid through the end of this week," he says. "Then we're sort of watching what's happening in the world, and will decide on what we'll do with everyone. A lot of our staff members are able to work from home, and we'll just continue to pay them."
Those looking for a way to help out can visit the Join & Give page of the museum's website to contribute to its Annual Campaign and learn about the benefits of membership. "The unrestricted dollars that membership and annual fund gifts provide are essential to the museum's operations, and the exhibitions and public programs that bring our collections to life for our audiences," Fraver says. "As with all of our community's cultural organizations, these dollars have never been more critical." Learn more at eastman.org.
The museum is also finding additional ways to engage with their supporters through social media, including a newly-launched collection of videos on the Eastman Museum's YouTube channel with streaming film recommendations and Dryden-style introductions from Curator of Film Exhibitions Jared Case.
CITY also reached out to Zurich Cinemas, operators of both Pittsford Cinema and Movies 10 locally, as well as the Visual Studies Workshop, but didn't receive a response in time for the print version of this article. We'll update with information on how to support those theaters once it's available.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.