The coronavirus hasn't killed independent movie theaters

Jesse Schlotterbeck

The first quarter of 2020 was a high point of Chris Hamel’s decade-long run as president at the Gateway Film Center. The annual Academy Awards Gala party in early February was well attended. The South Korean film “Parasite” became the first foreign film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, extending an already popular run. “‘Parasite’ was the highest-grossing international film we’d ever played at the Film Center, and one of our top-10 grossing films ever,” Hamel said. Foot traffic was exceeding expectations, with Hamel estimating that the theater was drawing 300,000-400,000 per year, a growing figure he traced to a “diverse programming model [that] had really started to connect with audiences.”

Then COVID-19 hit.

On March 17, the Governor’s office ordered all cinemas in the state to close indefinitely as part of an effort to reduce viral spread, at which point the Gateway entered a strange new chapter in its history, as it could only engage an audience virtually for the immediate future.

This was a common experience among numerous local cinemas. At the Drexel in Bexley, in-person screenings were abruptly halted in mid-March. While the Gateway did reopen for in-person screenings from Aug. 31 through Nov. 16, the Drexel has remained closed the entirety of the pandemic.

Drexel Manager Jeremy Henthorn has been encouraged by the outpouring that has kept the theater viable. “Community support for the theater is the reason that we’re not only going to be around but be in a good position when we reopen the theater,” he said.“We have an incredibly dedicated and robust customer base that has gone above and beyond what we expected in terms of donating to the theater, supporting our Gala and buying gift cards and memberships in advance.”

In addition, the Drexel created a line of branded clothing, including a face mask with the Drexel logo,for purchase online.

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In the absence of in-person attendance, both the Drexel and the Gateway have offered online screenings. Tickets for these screenings cost $5-$12 and both cinemas typically have five or more films available at a given time. Titles currently available for rental through the Drexel have a strong international focus and include: “Another Round,” a Danish film from Dogme film pioneer Thomas Vinterberg; a documentary about punk musician Shane MacGowan; and “Mayor,” a documentary about a Palestinian politician.

Digital rentals sometimes include supplemental material that wouldn’t be offered at a traditional screening. “Mayor,” for example, includes an extended Q&A with the film’s director.

Among the films currently available through the Gateway are: “76 Days,” a Chinese documentary about the first COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan; “Minor Premise,” an independent science-fiction film about mind hacking; a documentary about 1970s rock musician Frank Zappa; and French period film “The Black Book of Father Dinis."

Earlier this month, the Gateway was announced asthe sole Ohio “satellite screen” for the premiere U.S. film festival, Sundance. From Jan. 28 through Feb. 3, Ohioans will be able to access more than 50 Sundance films, including many premiere screenings,via the Gateway’s site. Many screenings will feature live Q&A sessions.Tickets and passes for Sundance will be available to the general public starting Jan. 7.

During the months Gateway was closed, virtual programming helped to sustain it. Hamel singled out “From Book to Film,” a summer reading and film adaptation series, as a particular success. “Over 10,000 participated,” Hamel said. “Clearly there were parents looking for things [for their kids] to do.” Working in partnership with the Kanopy streaming service and the Columbus Metropolitan Library, four weeks of content were programmed for school-aged children. An archive of streamed materialcan be found here.

Currently, the Gateway is curating aweekly series featuring seasonally appropriate films. The first week featured two British films: the short “The Snowman” (1982) and Danny Boyle’s “Millions” (2004). This past week the 1994 adaptation of “Little Women” and the Disney short “Pluto’s Christmas Tree” (1952) were featured, and a an announcement on the next slate of films is forthcoming.

During the pandemic, the Gateway also rolled out a new “Conversations” series, with 20- to 30-minute episodes posting mostFriday and Tuesday evenings.The programs typically feature Hamel and an interviewee discussing a film that is streamable online, whether for-purchase via the Gateway or on a major streaming platform. During the live stream, viewers can submit questions for consideration, and the episodes are also recorded for later viewing. Discussion topics this year included film soundtracks, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho and election-campaign feature films. Given that some episodes attracted more than 1,000 viewers online, it is likely that the Gateway will keep producing episodes post-pandemic, both live in the theater and for the web.

The Wexner Center’s Film & Video department also made changes to adapt to the pandemic, moving much of its programming online, including a pair of annual film festivals and “The Box,” a monthly free program of short films first launched in 2005. This month, online visitors to “The Box” can stream  “Character,” a profile of actor Mark Metcalf by Vera Brunner-Sung, andAlison Crocetta’s “Bear in Mind (The Bill of Rights),” in which an American Sign Language interpreter performs the Bill of Rights.

The Zoom Family Film Festival, which typically runs at the Wex for a weekend in early December, is taking shape as a curated online program this year, with access extending through April for the free titles. These include films aimed at a very young audience, such as the French animated films “Eleanor’s Secret” and “Ernest and Celestine,” as well as a documentary more appropriate for a teenage audience, “Pressure Cooker: Culinary Arts Bootcamp.” In addition to the four freely accessible titles, the Zoom festival includes three programs of short “Kids Flicks” that can be streamed in partnership with the New York International Children’s Film Festival for around $10 each.

Previously, in October, the Wex moved the fourth annual Unorthodocs Film Festival online, which forced Chris Stults, associate curator of film/video, to be even more selective in his selections. “It’s impossible to drop out of your life [for a weekend] and have a viewing marathon,” Stults said, noting the in-person festival often attracted attendees that could devote a full weekend to the event. “So we tried to pare it down.”

The online pivot also afforded the Wex an opportunity to work with filmmakers who may not have been able to attend an in-person event in Columbus, including filmmaker and professor Nina Menkes. Stults, who invited Menkes to Unorthodocs, doubted that she could have otherwise been a part of the event.

More than any other local cinema institution, the Wexner also actively sought original material that spoke to the current year. ForCinetracts ’20, which was conceived before the pandemic hit, 20 video artists were invited “to capture ‘the zeitgeist in your own backyard,” in the hopes a global portrait would emerge. The series of two-minute videos, first posted in October and still available online, reflected the events of 2020, with many filmmakers pivoting from their original concepts to address the pandemic or the months of Black lives matter protests that sprung up beginning in late May.

Most local cinemas expect this virtual run to extend into the early spring of 2021. “The first concern has to be public health overall,” said Drexel manager Henthorn, who doesn’t expect to reopen until March or April at earliest, adding that the theater is also at the “whim of studios,” to an extent, regarding the availability of films to show. Recently Warner Bros. struck a deal with HBO Max in which its first-run feature films will debut simultaneously on the streaming platform beginning with “Wonder Woman 1984” this month and continuing throughout 2021, and many theaters are still in wait-and-see mode to see what other film studios might do.

Gateway’s Hamel remains bullish on the long-term prospects of limited-screen, curatorial cinemas like the Drexel and Gateway. In our interview, Hamel took a broad view of the impact of the pandemic, clarifying that an industry-wide shift towards more emphasis on at-home streaming was well underway prior to the coronavirus.

“I don’t think that 2021 or 2022 is going to look like 2017 in cinema,” Hamel said. “The future of the industry will be less ‘you can’t see this any other way so you’ve gotta come to us,’” he continued.

Hamel, however, drew a sharp contrast between the megaplex cinema and smaller, independent theaters, saying that the “next iteration of venues might look more like the ’60s and ’70s, where there aren’t megaplexes.”

The fact that the Gateway recently became a not-for-profit institution also means that it can afford to make programming choices in line with its broader mission statement rather than focusing just on the bottom line. “Knowing that someone is going to bring you films … regardless if audiences fill the screening rooms or not is comforting to those of us who love film,” Hamel said.

Even though 2020 will go down as one of the worst years in film history in terms of box office receipts, Hamel maintained that “movies are more important in 2020 than any other year in history."

“People who fell in love with movies in 2020 because they were watching more of them than they ever did [during stay at home orders] are likely to seek out places like the Gateway or Drexel or Wexner Center [after the pandemic],” he said.

Movie theaters like the Drexel Theatre in Bexley are currently closed amid the COVID-19 shutdown