Will theaters survive? Historic movie house trying to hang on amid COVID-19 closure

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Academy Theater in SE Portland hopes government aid for small businesses can come through

PORTLAND, Ore. — Movie theaters, along with gyms and other crowd-gathering businesses, were among the first to close down in Oregon amid a COVID-19 directive from Gov. Kate Brown to disallow gatherings of 250 people or more earlier this month. She later thanked those businesses for taking the initiative, even before she issued a more strictly enforced “Stay at home” order.

For Heyward Stewart, Co-Owner of Academy Theater in Portland’s Montavilla Neighborhood, shutting down temporarily was a matter of protecting the public and trying to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread.

“Obviously, we can’t carry on in that type of enclosed environment for the safety of the staff and all the customers. It’s really hard to do,” Stewart told KOIN 6 News.

Academy Theater in Portland’s Montavilla neighborhood was reopened in 2006 after a renovation following its closure in the 1970s. March 28, 2020 (Academy Theater).

The closure of the theater, which also involved laying off most of its employees, coincided with many other theaters in Portland temporarily closing, like Northeast Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the Avalon Theatre in Southeast, Bagdad Theater, Clinton Steet Theater and countless others, as well as the large chains across the country.

In response, Stewart banded together with other local business owners, sending a letter out to Gov. Brown and state law makers “to keep an eye on the movie industry and work quickly on any type of assistance that they can put together to us and quite frankly to all small businesses that have to shut down during this–coffee shops, bars, you name it.”

Stewart hopes that some financial assistance from the government, and the public’s continued interest in collective movie viewing in a theater after the virus plays itself out, will enable the theater to stay afloat in the long term. The theater originally launched in 1948 and was restored and re-opened in 2006 after being closed for several decades.

“If we can handle the bills that we have outstanding and our fixed costs, if we can handle that in the face of no income, hopefully we can hang on if this thing passes, which I’m sure it will.”

When asked whether the theater is accepting donations from people, Stewart said no and that he wouldn’t even ask.

“We’re all in this together. I don’t think anyone’s got a lot of money to throw around to donate,” he said.

However he added that the theater is accepting gift certificate purchases online for people interested in attending the theater at some future date, once the social distancing measures are lowered and the thread of COVID-19 is over.

Academy Theater in Southeast Portland has thus far survived a evolving movie market by screening second run movies at a lower rate and showing 35 mm film movies. March 28, 2020 (Academy Theater).

When asked whether he thought the COVID-19 pandemic could permanently curtail people’s tendency to attend movie theaters at all, and instead opt to stream, for instance, Stewart said he hopes people will still go to the movies. He said he thinks they will since they’ve showed out in droves to see second run films at his theater, sometimes selling out on weekends with lines around the block, even for occasional 35 mm screenings.

Dustin Morrow, Associate Professor of Film at Portland State University, also thinks that there will always be an audience for communal movie-going.

“I don’t think that film spectatorship in a theater is going to go away. I just think it needs to rethink itself. I think there are films that people are still going to want to see in the theaters and those are movies that have a grand scale,” like the Marvel films and the war epic 1917.

He said that some theaters are also trying to rethink the communal film experience to make it more interactive, like some of the programming at Hollywood Theater.

“Stuff like B-Movie Bingo, where you’re playing a bingo game with the crowd while you watch a movie,” Morrow said.

Adding to his argument that theater screens will still be in demand after the pandemic passes are the Hollywood Theatre’s successes with things like Kung Fu cinema screenings, or other films from a past era known to sell out in a cinema-centric city like Portland.

At the same time, the shakeup of the COVID-19 response has left movie studios canceling releases, premiering them straight to stream, and left over 100,000 movie industry technician workers laid off, Morrow said.

Academy Theater in Southeast Portland is a historic movie house originally launched in 1948. March 28, 2020 (Academy Theater).

The National Association of Theater Owners is asking congress for emergency funds to assist with the temporary shutdown, he said.

Some theaters are already trying to adapt to a new model, at least temporarily. For example, the local art house movie theater Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland has begun offering a “virtual cinema” streaming service.

Meanwhile, technology to experience movies in a communal way, but separately in each individuals’ home is also advancing. A Google Chrome extension called Netflix Party is one example, in which multiple separate households can sync up streaming the same movie to be watched at the same time. A side chat window displays to socially engage with each other from a distance while the movie plays.

“We don’t want to end up in Ready Player One, where everybody just lives in a van with their headset eyeglasses on and nobody ever interacts in the real world together. But it’ll be interesting to see, especially if this experience goes on for quite some time, if we’re not going to see some tech innovation in that way.”

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