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Small Movie Theaters Ponder Post-Pandemic Future

Megan Kamerick
Owner Keif Henley outside The Guild in Albuquerque

After more than a year, people are buying tickets and popcorn at The Guild Cinema in Albuquerque. Owner Keif Henley scrambled to re-open when the state revamped its color-coded risk system recently. Bernalillo County was suddenly in the least restrictive turquoise phase.

He’s still limited to 33% capacity --- or just 36 people – in the single-screen theater.

“Some businesses can't reopen it at 25% or even 33%,” Henley says. “Their overhead is too much. We can limp along.”

With virus restrictions easing around New Mexico, movie theaters are beginning to open again. Many smaller independent movie houses managed to stay afloat during the pandemic, but they may look different moving forward.

Credit Megan Kamerick
Classic movie posters get a pandemic twist in The Guild's lobby

Over the past year Henley offered dozens of films for viewing online. He shared the ticket revenue with filmmakers and distributors.

“And that kept us afloat barely. We were burning through a couple of grants that we were fortunate enough and lucky enough to get from the city,” he says. “We just applied for the Shuttered Venue Operations grant. I don't know what our odds are to get the money, but we're hoping that that will help us carry through 2021.” 

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant is a $15 billion federal program. The first round of funds are due to go out this month and Henley is hoping to upgrade his air filtration system. But, even as he opens, he’s keeping the online sceenings.

“There's going to be a part of the population that's not going to feel safe going out en masse,” he says. “And I want to respect that and I want to offer something. So yes, it will be virtual online and it will be in person.”

Henley occasionally rented out the theater to small groups. The Violet Crown in Santa Fe also did this. Bill Banowsky owns Violet Crown and says the RSVP Cinema program launched about two months ago. 

“We created literally a jukebox cinema, where we have more than 100 titles that one can choose for an RSVP private rental. And that has been really successful,” Banowsky says. “And it's really great. It gives the gives the patron more options. So we would like to keep that around to some degree, although we will ultimately be mostly general admission seating once we fully open.”

Like The Guild, the Violet Crown has partially opened and applied for the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. But Banowsky also found a lot of help here in New Mexico from his bankers and a loan from the New Mexico Recovery Fund.

“We’re in three states. We're in New Mexico, Texas and Virginia, and by far, New Mexico has been the most helpful to our businesses that have closed than any of these other states. Not even close.”

Banowsky predicts a boom year in 2022 as delayed films are released. One recent survey found that nearly 30% of adults say they feel comfortable returning to movie theaters in the next month.

But not everyone is optimistic.

“There's a whole issue here. Are movie theaters coming back?” asks author George RR Martin. “Or has COVID killed movie theaters?”

Martin owns the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, in addition to writing the books that inspired “Game of Thrones.” The theater is still closed.

“I think there still is an audience for big motion pictures, but especially if there's a theatrical window,” he says. “If the theatrical window goes away entirely, if all of the studios say, ‘Okay, Netflix can have it the same day that it opens in theaters?’ I don't know. I don't know.”

The theatrical window gave theaters about three months to have films exclusively. The pandemic has upended all that with many studios over the last year releasing films simultaneously in theaters and on streaming services.

Variety recently proclaimed the death of the theatrical window with the latest announcement by Disney that two of its upcoming films would go into theaters exclusively, but only for 45 days.

Martin says for now he’s watching how things shake out and he’s revisiting plans to renovate the Cocteau, with nicer seats, possibly a re-opened cocktail bar and diverse programming.

“We have to have the best seats in town. And we have to show movies nobody else is showing,” he says. “We want to do special events, more author events, more speakers. We could do live music. We could do a little standup comedy. I think a Cocteau will come back in one fashion or another. But exactly what form and when I can't really say right now that's going to need further exploration.”

Indeed according to the Hollywood Reporter, people are willing to pay more for premium movie experiences as they emerge from lockdown.

Small cinemas like The Guild don’t have IMAX screens and giant reclining chairs. But they do have a core fan base -- folks like Peter Seerie.

“This is always my favorite theater,” Seerie says. “I’ve seen literally 100s of movies here so I’m a pretty diehard Guild fan.” 

Seerie says he did watch some of the movies Guild owner Keif Henley offered online, but it is not the same.

“Nothing beats a bigger screen.”

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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