Among the small businesses shuttered by shelter-in-place orders are two of Georgia’s historic art-house theaters. How are these independent cinemas surviving, and innovating, now that their screens have gone dark?
Christopher Escobar, owner of Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre and executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, said that business had already been slowing down for about two weeks prior to their closing. And Pamela Kohn, executive director of Ciné in Athens, said their decision to shut down the theater was difficult, but necessary.
“We closed the business and, basically, I went into sort of triage mode, I guess you would call it,” she said. “It wasn't an easy thing to do, but obviously, you know, the best, the safest and the most advisable.”
Both venues have been slashing expenses where they can and applying for paycheck protections and economic disaster loans under the CARES Act. And while they are grateful for the financial relief, they aren’t quite sure how much they will get — or when.
“It’s still unclear, even if we do get approved, what that turnaround time will be for those funds,” Escobar said. “We've already incurred a substantial loss getting to this point and we're going to keep having a loss going forward. And so, while it has the potential to help, it definitely has no ability to fully cover the impact.”
In the meantime, both theaters have come up with innovative ways to bring in at least some passive income while the seats are empty — including online streaming. Some distributors, such as Magnolia Pictures, IFC and others, are working to make content available for the cinemas to screen online.
Kino Lorber, for example, launched an initiative called Kino Marquee, enabling movie theaters that were forced to close during the coronavirus outbreak to show content and generate revenue.
“We had wanted to book a film called Bacurau, a Brazilian Film, prior to closing,” Kohn explained. “I saw that Kino Lorber had created a Kino Now Marquee and Bacarau was their first offering. So we booked that film, and that was our first film that we offered on our virtual cinema marquee.”
Plaza Theatre, which turned 80 years old in December, is also selling limited concessions and to-go bar orders. And, for anyone who has contributed to their GoFundMe page, Atlanta’s historic cinema is offering access to its “Plaza Movie Club.”
This is where viewers can join what they’re calling “quaran-streaming” events, like a live online viewing of the Rocky Horror Quarantine Show, which takes place tonight at midnight. On Sat. April 25, Plaza will have a special screening of The Room — which Escobar calls “the best worst movie ever made” — with actor Greg Sestero joining live in conversation.
“People are going to be able to do their audience participation as a group from the safety and confines of their own home, but be able to still experience it together,” he said.
And, they’re still doing what cinemas do best: screening new movies. Both theaters are showing films that would have been released during this timeframe, such as Saint Frances, which came out in February. Ciné is even trying to introduce a free film for members of the community to view.
“I think that brings a sense of continuity and a sense [that] something's at least somewhat normal in terms of, you know, seeing films that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see,” Kohn said. “And we're absolutely thrilled to be able to do this as part of our service to the community.”
For now, support from staff and hopefully the community-at-large can help sustain these beloved independent cinemas until they are able to open again.
“It is going to be a tough road ahead and we've got a number of things that we're working on,” Escobar said. “You know, there will be a day when we reopen and we'll be sort of bigger and better and I think closer — and really not take for granted the uniqueness and the special quality that is there with being able to get together with folks from your community, and watch a movie together.”