Suns Cinema, a local cinema.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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The postponement of wide releases in movie theaters, along with their widespread closing, all seemed to happen so suddenly. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, major studios pulled their blockbusters from theatrical release. The superhero film Black Widow has been delayed indefinitely, while the release date for the James Bond film No Time to Die was postponed three times. Left with few major titles to show, theaters across the country closed. 

A year later, studios are experimenting with how they’ll release their films to the public: Warner Bros. unveiled a hybrid streaming-screening model for its major films, while others will head directly to Video on Demand platforms. Along similar lines, cinemas big and small are finding new ways to survive. In the D.C. region, guidelines for opening theaters vary by locality, so there was never a one-size-fits-all solution. In order to survive, owners of three independent cinemas in the area had to figure out precisely what their community wanted.

Cinema Arts is a small, independently owned theater in Fairfax, nestled in a corner of Fair City Shopping Mall. Stepping into the mall is a bit like time traveling into the 1990s. It looks abandoned, a vestige of a shopping experience long past its prime. As for the theater, whose lobby is adjacent to a Korean BBQ joint, the picture and sound system are perfectly immersive, although the auditoriums themselves lack the polish of a state-of-the-art multiplex. For theater owner and manager Mark O’Meara, who also owns the University Mall Theatres on Braddock Road, Cinema Arts’ first and most immediate post-pandemic program was curbside popcorn. Theaters were completely closed in the middle of March 2020, and this was one way he could keep his employees working. O’Meara was surprised by the outreach and enthusiasm. “We just had someone come into the theater, pay for a candy bar with a $20 bill, and say ‘Keep the change,’”
he says.

Once Virginia theaters reopened under phase three of Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID plan on July 1, there were few movies actually available to play, so O’Meara took an idea from University Mall and applied it to Cinema Arts. “You know, we were [renting out] theaters for kids’ birthday parties at University Mall. Why don’t we do something here?” That’s how he came up with Gather Round, a program where someone can rent out an entire auditorium for a private screening, with a maximum of 10 people per showing in accordance with the guidelines. For two hours and a price starting at $100 (increasing with the number of guests in your party), you can watch a new release or whatever DVD or Blu-ray disc you have. According to O’Meara, what people bring is all over the place, although Frozen and The Goonies remain popular. “Every time I ask [my customers] how they liked it, and they always say, ‘You know, I forgot how great it was on the big screen.’”

There is something to that repeated refrain. In the fall, for my birthday, my wife booked a double feature Gather Round just for the two of us. We watched Phoenix, a German World War II drama from 2014, and the Gene Hackman thriller The French Connection. The experience is a lot different than watching something at home, to the point that I was moved by how much I missed it. The experience washed over me, affirming the gorgeous unreality that only movies can provide. The sound is a huge factor, since I had forgotten just how loud music, gunfire, and explosions can be with massive theater speakers—my wife visibly jumped in her seat when the aggressive music kicked into gear. Even though we were all alone, things almost felt like they were normal. The program has proven to be extremely popular, and O’Meara books around 180 Gather Rounds a month. He has felt “humbled” by the number of families and friends who’ve tried Gather Round for themselves.

Other jurisdictions aren’t able to offer the same program as Cinema Arts. Since they closed last March, movie theaters in the District have not been allowed to reopen. But even if theaters opened in the District tomorrow, David Cabrera is not certain he would want pre-pandemic crowds. Cabrera is co-owner of Suns Cinema, a boutique movie theater in Mount Pleasant that is equal parts theater and lounge. Since the public health emergency began, Cabrera’s philosophy has been “Let’s not pretend that this does not suck.” Suns is too small to accommodate safe social distancing—anyone who has been there knows the rows are practically on top of one another.

His intermediate business plan, therefore, is twofold: He offers curbside cocktails along with a virtual program. Suns partnered with Kino Marquee, a virtual streaming partnership that links VOD art films directly with individual independent theaters. Cabrera says some titles have been more successful than others—there was a lot of enthusiasm for the Brazilian Western Bacurau and the economics documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century—but he sees a bigger opportunity with Eventive, another streaming platform. He plans to use the platform to partner with the American Genre Film Archive and its back catalog of cult favorites. Patrons of Suns are more about Fitzcarraldo than Frozen, so the idea has potential.

Eventive isn’t just popular for hole-in-the-wall theaters like Suns. In Maryland, where openings vary by county, Silver Spring’s AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center also opts for the service. Director of programming Todd Hitchcock isn’t annoyed that his Montgomery County theater remained closed while theaters in adjacent Howard and Anne Arundel counties could open in recent months. “We are more focused on opening for real,” he says, but he realizes that his audience “is desperate for something to engage with at home.” To that end, he has found success with a series of virtual festivals: The Latin American Film Festival, the European Union Film Showcase, and Noir City performed better than expected (the first two festivals have been mainstays at AFI for more than 30 years). Hitchcock figures that a festival, unlike Netflix’s latest new release, creates a sense of connection because there is a shared purpose. Virtual audiences are more together when they appreciate a particular genre or part of the world.

Still, Hitchcock acknowledges that the virtual screening room space has its limits. “We only have a fraction of the viewership we once had,” he admits. On the other hand, he recognizes the nature of virtual viewing means he can engage with cinephiles who may not have initially traveled a long distance to watch a movie. By reaching folks who are not traditional festival-goers, he might convert them into committed, flesh-and-blood fans once theaters reopen. Both Cabrera and Hitchcock think it may be possible that they finally open their doors in the spring or summer. It’s still a long way off, and as Cabrera half-joked, “We don’t want to kill anyone.”

Now that people are getting vaccinated and experts see the proverbial light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, there are renewed questions about what is and is not safe. Actually, we shouldn’t say “safe,” according to Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University. “[Safe] is a four letter word … What we are talking about is risk reduction because ‘safe’ has the aura of completeness. We cannot be completely safe in our current environment.” If he and his wife—both of whom are vaccinated—went to the movies, they would wear masks and adhere to proper social distancing, whether in line or in the auditorium. 

When I told Schaffner about Gather Round and my birthday gift, he laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought of anybody doing anything so elaborate and extraordinary. After you interact with the theater manager … in effect [the auditorium] is like being at home watching television.” Adding people to Gather Round would increase risk, of course, but Schaffner figures that this reevaluation of deliberate risk reduction will become increasingly important as the vaccines roll out and the landscape of the pandemic changes.

Whether we are talking about a virtual festival or curbside popcorn, there is one thing that these risk reduction techniques cannot replicate. “You currently cannot have the experience of being [in the theater] with a lot of other people,” Schaffner says. More jurisdictions are opening their cinemas—New York City reopened cinemas to limited capacity this week—so these concerns and risk management techniques will become more urgent. 

In a recent presentation about virtual film festivals from the Film Festival Alliance, 32 different festivals gave their audience awards to 32 films—there was zero overlap. That is a revealing statistic: Unless we are with other people, there is little chance to feed off each other, to share all the thrilling emotions of a communal viewing experience. That kind of energy, one that is unique and ephemeral, is part of why I feel so at home at the movies in the first place. There is a sense of validation or belonging when everyone collectively experiences the same film, whether it’s funny, thrilling, tragic, or something in between. We cannot have that yet, but these theaters—in their own way—are trying to preserve the memories. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that viewership is down strongly in AFI Silver’s virtual screening rooms, not its virtual festivals.