Le cinéma

How indie theaters stayed afloat during the pandemic, from playing commercial films like Dune to building drive-ins

  • The theatrical industry in the US was devastated by the pandemic, including arthouse cinemas.
  • Indie theater operators described the changes they had to implement over the last two years.
  • They programmed movies they wouldn’t have before, like “Dune,” and relied on community support.

Theater manager Tom Ranieri gathered his family in his kitchen on March 17, 2020, wrote on a sticky note “two to four weeks,” and stuck it to a cabinet door.

He had just gotten home from Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon, on the last day it would be open for 14 months. The coronavirus pandemic, which closed movie theaters across the US, forced the arthouse cinema to shut down and furlough its staff.

The note was a prediction of sorts to stay hopeful. It soon turned into a guessing game — and then an unfortunate reminder.

“I thought we would somehow see a return to normalcy pretty quickly,” Ranieri told Insider. “I adjusted it to a couple months, and then a year. I kept writing over it as a testament to not having a clue of what was going on.”

I thought we would somehow see a return to normalcy pretty quickly.

The theatrical industry in the US has been devastated by the pandemic.

Once-frequent theatergoing demographics, like families and older audiences, have been slow to return. One theater operator told Insider that even his cinephile mom hadn’t been back to a theater since the pandemic began. And media companies have shifted more and more focus to their


streaming

operations.

AMC Theatres, the largest theatrical chain in the world, was on the verge of bankruptcy last year.

The data firm Comscore estimated that 500 movie theaters in the US were closed due to the pandemic as of February 25, and it was unable to say whether they would permanently shutter or reopen. That’s around 9% of the 5,500 movie theaters in the US that were typically open pre-pandemic, though the number fluctuated on any given week. 

If a movie hasn’t been a franchise tentpole, particularly of the superhero variety, or a horror film, it’s largely underperformed at the box office. Adult dramas like “West Side Story” have suffered because of it. 

The total domestic box office in 2021 was $4.58 billion, according to Comscore — double 2020’s total but down 60% from 2019.

cinema 21 indie theater arthouse cinemas

Cinema 21 in Portland, OR.

Cinema 21


So, where do America’s independent theaters stand in all of this? The arthouse cinemas and the film centers, of which smaller titles are their backbone, also closed for months at the start of the pandemic.

Some of these cinemas have likely shut their doors for good. But many others marched on; some are even better than ever.

They were supported by their local communities, experimented with new strategies like virtual screenings, and took advantage of the closures to improve their venues. Federal and local government grants helped. And many turned to drive-in theater experiences to attract moviegoers while indoor screenings were shut down. The Texas Theatre in Dallas erected a screen in its parking lot and served concessions “Sonic style” during the early months of the pandemic.

“​​The torch carried by indie-cinema operators is inspiring,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the Comscore senior media analyst.

Insider spoke with indie-theater operators across five states and Washington, DC about how their respective theaters made it through the pandemic, the lessons they learned, and what the future looks like. The operators Insider spoke to were largely optimistic.

The conversations highlighted the similar steps they took to evolve over the last two years, whether it was through renovations or film programming, and how smaller players in the theatrical space might have an advantage in this regard.

“Community arthouses are in a better position now to move forward with the times [than the larger chains,]” said Ryan Oestreich, the general manager of Music Box Theatre in Chicago. “We’ll be nimble and figure out what works for our audience. We’ll still struggle for a while. We’ll have to keep adjusting to what our audience wants and when they’ll come out. But if anyone can do it it’s our sector.”

Indie theaters have played movies they wouldn’t have before the pandemic, from ‘Dune’ to ‘No Time to Die’

Oestreich’s mom hasn’t been back to a movie theater in two years.

“My mother is why I love going to the movies,” Oestreich said. “She used to take me weekly as a kid. She has yet to go back to a movie since the pandemic started.”

His mom, who is 70, reflects a troubling trend that has emerged during the pandemic: Older audiences aren’t coming out to the movies in droves, meaning adult-skewing dramas are hurting. The most successful releases in the US, from “Spider-Man: No Way Home” to “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” have been driven by younger crowds.

It has particularly posed a problem for many independent theaters with older demographics as the main customer base. But the people Insider spoke to described how this has forced them to pivot along with the moment, and screen bigger budget movies they may not have played before the pandemic; arthouse fare with commercial crossover.

“Many theaters when consulting with me made the decision to reach across the aisle to play more commercial wide-release studio films like ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time to Die,'” said Adam Birnbaum, the film programming director for Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut and a consultant for independent cinemas throughout the US. 

Andrew Mencher calls them “smarthouse” movies.

“Arthouses that aren’t playing commercial movies are further behind,” said Mencher, the programming and operations director for Avalon Theatre in Washington, DC. 

music box theatre arthouse indie cinemas

The Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

Provided by Music Box.


Rebecca Green, an indie film producer whose credits include the 2014 horror movie “It Follows,” told Insider that it’s now necessary for arthouse cinemas to play more commercial product. In a viral tweet on March 11, Green noted the difficulty of making indie movies today.

“The Landmark theater where I live in Detroit, that I would see indie movies at, closed last year,” Green said. “We have to acknowledge that theaters need to make money to stay open.”

Ian Judge, the creative director at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts, said that “Dune” and “No Time to Die” were the best performing films for the theater last year. “Licorice Pizza,” a movie that would typically play at arthouses, also did solid business, but not as well as it would have if not for the Omicron variant wave, he said.

“That part of the business hasn’t returned to normal yet,” Judge said, referring to indie movies.

Mencher said the best-performing film for Avalon in 2021 was the musical “In the Heights,” which underperformed in its total domestic gross with $30 million (it was also streaming on


HBO Max

while in theaters). 

It was the first movie to play at the theater after it reopened, and an example of a movie that wouldn’t have played there in a normal year. Another is the James Bond movie “No Time to Die,” which Mencher said appealed to both its core audience and a younger demographic.

But when he says younger, he means 40-to-50 years olds.

“Our core audience is anywhere from 55 to 80,” he said.

“West Side Story,” another box-office flop on the nationwide scale, performed well at the indie theaters that played it, based on Insider’s interviews. It was the Stamford cinema Avon’s most successful movie of the pandemic so far, Birnbaum said.

“‘West Side Story’ is a perfect example of a movie that with a robust movie pipeline, it might not have been a movie we would have played in the past,” he said. “But it felt like the right movie at the time.”

But Mencher, from the non-profit Avalon in DC, said that while it performed well, it still took in just 40% of what it would have been in a normal year around the Christmas and New Year holidays. He said it reflects the issue the larger theatrical industry, particularly the big chains, are facing.

“One movie has worked [‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’], but you can’t run a commercial multiplex with just one movie,” he said. “I would be extremely concerned if I were a commercial theater owner.”

I would be extremely concerned if I were a commercial theater owner.

That’s why some of the people Insider talked to said that the arthouse or specialty-theater scene has an advantage compared to the giant multiplexes. On top of often being beloved by their local communities, they said they have more flexibility.

The Texas Theatre in Dallas renovated its balcony while it was closed, adding a second screen for the first time since its opening in 1931.

It can now play newer movies it didn’t have the chance to before thanks to the additional space, and even played “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” 

But it doesn’t have to rely on those movies. The theater is known for its repertory programming of older films, and that won’t change (a screening of “A Clockwork Orange” sold out in September). Epstein, the owner, said that the theater is even “in better shape than before” the pandemic.

“We don’t have all our eggs in one basket,” Epstein said. “We don’t need a new movie coming out. We can do ‘Nightmare on Elm Street 2’ with a live drag show and don’t need a studio to say ‘here are the movies you can choose from this week.'”

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The Avon Theatre hosted a Hitchcock-themed Halloween event last year.

Provided by the Avon Theatre.


Local communities have helped keep some arthouses alive

Programming strategies aren’t the only way that indie theaters have survived the pandemic. Many can’t solely rely on the films and audience attendance to sustain themselves. Community support beyond buying tickets has always been essential for nonprofit cinemas, even more so now.

Stuart Adelberg, the executive director of the non-profit Avon Theatre in Stamford who leads the theater’s fundraising efforts, realized the importance of having an arthouse theater in the community, and how valuable the community finds it, when he was sitting in the theater one day and overheard a conversation behind him.

“I heard a woman say that it’s great that Stamford has a jewel that plays such meaningful films as opposed to … ,” he said, with a pause. “Well, I won’t use the words she used.”

The Avon wouldn’t have survived the pandemic without contributions from community members.

If we were only counting on ticket sales, we wouldn’t be here anymore.

“Fundraising has kept us alive,” Adelberg said. “If we were only counting on ticket sales, we wouldn’t be here anymore.”

During a Hitchcock-themed Halloween event last year, people came to show their support for the theater dressed in costumes inspired by Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Adelberg said that the Avon is just as much a charitable organization as it is a movie theater. He used the example of raising money in order to offer free “West Side Story” tickets to the local ballet school.

“Our mission is to use film as a means to inspire people,” he said.

Everything is on the table

The Texas Theatre in Dallas set up a giant screen in its parking lot soon after shutting down in 2020 and ran concessions to cars “Sonic style,” Epstein, the owner, told Insider. 

Before the pandemic, drive-ins accounted for about 2% of the total domestic box office in a given year, according to Comscore. During the summer of 2020, in the thick of the pandemic when indoor moviegoing was still nonexistent in most areas of the US, they accounted for more than 80% of the box office.

It’s just one of the ways that theaters, particularly of the arthouse variety, pivoted during the pandemic to stay afloat. 

The pandemic exacerbated issues that were already facing movie theaters. It accelerated Hollywood’s focus on streaming. Big-budget superhero movies, from “No Way Home” to more recently “The Batman,” brought in the most business. Adult dramas suffered as older audiences have been slow to return to cinemas. 

This has put enormous pressure on the arthouse scene, as theater operators chose to program more commercial movies they might not have considered before the pandemic. 

Green, the film producer, said she’s worried for the future of indie cinema, as


Netflix

, Marvel, and TV not only tie up actors’ schedules, but consumers’ attention, too.

texas theatre

The Texas Theatre in Dallas turned its parking lot into a drive-in during the pandemic.

Provided by the Texas Theatre.


But there’s hope. Low-budgeted movies like “Dog” have shown promise this year in attracting demographics that hadn’t otherwise been the main demos attending theaters. And that’s a good thing for the theatrical industry, particularly the little guys.

And just because the arthouses Insider spoke to are playing commercial product doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned what made them so popular in their local communities in the first place.

Two years ago, drive-in events, like those set up by the Texas Theatre, may have been rare occurrences. They certainly weren’t the primary source of revenue for indoor theaters. Relying on commercial product was more so unheard of. Now, it’s common. Everything is on the table as the industry learns to adapt.

That’s why Ranieri, the Cinema 21 manager, is always thinking about “Parasite.”

The 2019 South Korean movie, which would become the first international film to win the best-picture Oscar, was a hit for the theater. But on its opening day at Cinema 21, an error message on the server alarmed the theater’s projectionist and almost sabotaged the debut screening.

Even though they managed to play the movie on time, Ranieri looks back on that day as a reminder that “nothing is certain.”

“It was one of those times where even if you’re feeling like things are going perfectly, you have to be cautious,” he said.

He’s reminded of that a lot these days. He still has the sticky note on his kitchen cabinet.