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How to help indie movie theater owners and workers when you can’t go to the movies

Movie theaters are shut down. Innovators are trying out some ways to help owners and workers.

Businesses Close Stores Nationwide In Response To Coronavirus Pandemic
Movie theaters across the nation are shuttered. But there are ways to help.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Suppose you own a small movie theater, somewhere in Middle America — a place to show movies that won’t make it onto the screens of the superhero- and franchise-favoring multiplex at the mall. You’re already operating on a shoestring budget, but you’re staying afloat thanks to loyal moviegoers and families who see your cinema as a place for discovery, community, and delight.

Then a pandemic hits.

Trying to keep the virus from spreading, local officials order businesses like yours to close. Or you stay open, but you sell half as many tickets as usual to every movie in order to let moviegoers spread out. People who are self-quarantining or trying to practice good social distancing aren’t turning out for your films. Eventually, you may decide to close down too.

What happens to your business? And what happens to your workers? Will your business be able to survive the CDC’s recommended eight-week guideline for avoiding large gatherings? If your ticket sales have bottomed out, and your profit margin is already razor-thin, how do you keep going? Will your employees be able to pay their rent?

These are real questions that cinema owners and workers are facing right now across the country, due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, which has thrown the entire entertainment industry into a tailspin. And while wealthy moguls and big-time stars might be able to weather the storm just fine, thousands of people who live on middle-class salaries or hourly wages are facing an uncertain future as they try to just pay bills and keep their businesses open.

Big movie theater chains like AMC and Regal have announced plans to close hundreds of multiplexes across the country, as have boutique chains like Alamo Drafthouse, with theater owners asking Congress for help to stay afloat. And hundreds of independent theater owners, whose cinemas often are cherished community gathering places, now find themselves struggling to stay solvent.

It seems likely that the pandemic will alter the landscape of American moviegoing altogether, and no savior has emerged. But a few grassroots efforts are trying to find ways to stanch the flow and make it at least a little more possible for theaters, and theater workers suddenly out of a job, to survive.

Can watching a movie at home still benefit the theater?

Keif Henley owns the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque. “Like many arthouse cinema owners, I’m pretty devastated with what’s happening,” he wrote to me by email. “The imminent temporary closure, with all that entails ... lots of work ahead of me dealing with the various postponement, cancellations, [and] staff concerns.”

But while it won’t save the cinema, one new initiative is trying to find a way to let people watch independent movies at home and support independent theaters around the country. The test case is Phoenix, Oregon, an indie comedy about a graphic novelist and a chef who “seize an unlikely opportunity to reinvent their lives, quitting their jobs to restore an old bowling alley and serve the ‘world’s greatest pizza,’” according to the movie’s marketing materials. It’s written and directed by Gary Lundgren and stars familiar faces: James Le Gros, Jesse Borrego, Lisa Edelstein, Reynaldo Gallegos, Diedrich Bader, and Kevin Corrigan.

Traditionally, a movie like Phoenix, Oregon might get released in a handful of indie theaters, then expand to others, and eventually, months later, wind up available digitally on a service like iTunes, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. But with indie theaters struggling to stay afloat — and socially distanced audiences wanting to support their local theater — the film is being released in a new way.

At the movie’s website, moviegoers are presented with the option to buy a “ticket” through the “Theatrical-at-Home” initiative. A drop-down menu gives them the option to select a theater to support; once they’ve selected the theater, they can purchase a virtual “ticket.” Then they’ll receive a one-time screening link to the film on its release date, Friday, March 20. (Viewers have three days to watch the movie once they receive the link, and then 48 hours to finish it once they click on it.)

The virtual ticket price for Phoenix, Oregon is set at the “average matinee” cost of $6.50, and the proceeds are then split between the theater and the film. That’s a higher cost than a $2.99 rental down the road, but not enough to seem prohibitive — and since it helps support a local theater that people hope to visit in the future, the distributors are betting on the idea that audiences will pony up the extra few bucks. Furthermore, because the offer is available to anyone in the US or Canada, people from all over can choose to support a cinema from a distance.

“Buy a ticket, watch at home, support our theater” are displayed on a movie theater marquee in a strip mall.
One of the participating theaters in the “theatrical at home” initiative, Movies at Midway in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, advertises the program on its marquee.
Movies at Midway

“This is different from day-and-date. We think we’re doing something unprecedented,” Erik Lokkesmoe told me by phone. Lokkesmoe is president of Aspiration Entertainment, the company that’s distributing Phoenix, Oregon and, through its Aspiration Ventures arm and Theatricast initiative, trying out new ways of delivering movies and audience experiences. He notes that independent theaters are already taking a gamble by agreeing to show their film in the first place. “What we’re saying is we want people to buy tickets.”

“We really do think that we’re supporting small theaters and their staff,” Lokkesmoe says, in what he calls a movement toward “solidarity to honor independent filmmaking and independent theaters.” The Theatrical-at-Home experience is available to customers whether or not the theater is open. “It’s not a hook or a stunt; we just don’t want to abandon these great partners.”

Lokkesmoe says his company is planning to send the film’s box office results to Comscore, which tracks and analyzes movie industry data, though they’re not sure whether virtual tickets will be permitted to count toward the data. Still, it’s worth a try — especially with companies like NBCUniversal announcing new models of releasing films that would normally play in larger multiplexes, like Trolls World Tour, during the pandemic.

Henley sees the initiative as a positive movement toward supporting arthouse and independent cinema culture in trying times. “My hope is that it doesn’t erode one’s desire or need to see movies in a communal dark gathering place amongst friends and strangers,” he wrote. “I’m hoping that tradition will never die, but manages to live amongst the new technologies of the day in some kind of mutually cooperative way, somehow.”

And similar initiatives are being launched for art-house titles. On March 19, specialty distributor Kino Lorber announced that it would launch a “virtual theatrical exhibition initiative” over the next few days, beginning with Cannes film Bacurau, which opened in select theaters in early March but saw its theatrical release swiftly truncated by theater shutdowns. Through an initiative called “Kino Marquee,” audiences will be able to watch a film through a private screening room branded with an individual theater’s marquee (hosted on Kino’s streaming platform Kino Now) and promoted by the theaters, which include Film at Lincoln Center and BAM in New York, the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, Austin Film Society, and others. Virtual ticket buyers will be sent a link to the private screening room.

Lokkesmoe, who deeply believes in the importance of the theatrical experience, is adamant that ventures like these aren’t intended to stand in for theatrical release, especially once the current crisis passes. This model could work for other movies, he says, but he doesn’t want the digital experience to replace an old-fashioned movie theater. “I could see a case where an independent movie releases in 10 theaters, and anybody in the country can buy tickets, so you’re actually overselling inventory — the theater has 100 seats, and you could sell 200 seats, with 100 of them being virtual. Then the theater would more than double its box office.”

But in all, the goal is to support theaters. “Regardless of when we do our temporary closure, that will not stop this ingenious ‘stay at home and watch’ function for Phoenix, Oregon,” Henley wrote. “That’s a bright spot.”

Helping cinema workers pay the bills

Initiatives like bringing the theatrical experience directly to viewers might provide a stop-gap opportunity for small theaters. But what about theater workers?

New York City’s movie scene is arguably the most vibrant in the world, with major multiplexes and independent venues like the Quad Cinema, Film Forum, IFC Center, Film at Lincoln Center, Nitehawk, BAM, Metrograph, and many more serving up a diverse array of repertory programming, festivals, and new international and independent releases to the city’s enthusiastic cinephiles. But on March 15, movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles were closed indefinitely to help aid in flattening the curve. And that means cinema workers suddenly found themselves without income.

In New York, a small group of film industry professionals — programmers, filmmakers, and curators — decided to help. “We all got to talking about how cinemas needed to shut down as a safety measure, for public health, but this would also mean hourly workers at those theaters would pay an immediate price, effectively losing their jobs overnight,” Thomas Beard wrote to me. Beard is co-director of the Brooklyn-based venue Light Industry and a programmer at large at Film at Lincoln Center. Beard, filmmaker and critic Sierra Pettengill, programmer Nellie Killian, and Light Industry co-director and Bard College critic in residence Ed Halter decided to launch the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund. It’s a crowdsourced fund that could be accessed by cinema workers who, like those in hospitality industries, saw their hours curtailed due to the pandemic and who didn’t have other compensation.

“We can see that the city’s non-profit movie theaters are trying to do right by their employees, but the strain on these institutions is immense,” Killian wrote.

The fund launched on March 14, and within three days, the group had already fielded 300 applications for assistance.

The organizers emphasized that this fund isn’t meant to replace the measures that government and employers provide. “While it’s heartening to see that New York State has suspended the week-long waiting period to apply for unemployment benefits for those affected by COVID-19 closures, it still takes time to process those requests,” Beard wrote. “Many cinema workers need more immediate support. So we felt the need to act quickly, in solidarity.”

“The things that are going to be responsible for theater workers’ survival are basic worker protections — guaranteed paid leave, benefits, and so on,” wrote Pettengill. “This fund is only a temporary emergency measure, to try and help them get through this week and next.”

The response has been heartening. By March 18 — five days after the fund’s launch — the campaign had already exceeded the $50,000 goal and raised it to $62,000.

Yet at 300 applicants, that still only comes out to about $200 per person. That’s enough to cover maybe 20 to 25 percent of a very modest rent in New York, or about the cost of one or two utility bills, not to mention necessities like food. Measures taken by the government will help some workers, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty ahead. Still, any support helps, and increases the possibility of cinema workers being able to return to their posts once their employers are able to reopen theaters.

The uncertainty that workers and theaters are feeling has spilled over into most arts industries, with Broadway shut down, TV and film production on hiatus, museums shuttered, musicians losing gigs and concert revenue, and much more. Nobody knows what the future holds.

But small, innovative steps like these might help keep the lights on, and they’re an investment in a future most people hope for. Lokkesmoe sees the theatrical experience as a vital one, not just for moviegoers but for the industry as a whole. “There is something that’s unique about the relationship between filmmaker and independent theater, in that it is highly relational. It’s not a transactional business. [Independent] theater owners care about the craft. They care about the storytellers. They care about their audience, and they’re connected in a way in a community that’s very, very unique. It’s very personal.”

To lose that would be to “losing the centerpiece to how our community functions, celebrating art, not always bowing to what’s the biggest and most marketed and must funded movies,” he said. “There’s got to be a place for those.”

Sustaining those institutions will require some thoughtfulness from consumers, both in how they spend their money and where they give to those who need money.

“It’s hard to know what our industry, our city, our country, our world will look like after this is over,” Killian wrote. “I don’t know how any small business that relies on in person contact will survive months without customers. I don’t know how non-profits will maintain a donor base when there will be so much humanitarian need. I do think that people who have dollars to spend in the coming months and years need to think about how they are spending them, local pharmacy or CVS, local grocer or Amazon, small film distributor or Disney+.”

Updated at 3:24pm to include information about Kino Lorber’s virtual theatrical exhibition initiative.

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