Art House Movie Theaters Fight On Amid Pandemic

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Amy Sussman/Getty Images; AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images; Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

While some independent movie houses have closed indefinitely, others persevere with a mix of drive-ins, virtual screenings and concession sales as they apply for long-awaited federal relief.

The COVID-19 relief package passed in December is expected to distribute $15 billion for artistic venues, which includes independent movie theaters. Around the greater L.A. area, some small theaters have closed all operations for the duration of the shutdown that began in March, most notably the Vista, the Downtown Independent and the Quentin Tarantino-owned New Beverly Cinema. Here's how four others are struggling to stay afloat as the National Association of Theatre Owners estimates that 70 percent of smaller movie theaters are at risk of shuttering without federal aid.

ARENA CINELOUNGE

To help supplement the income of their Academy Award-qualified drive-in theater — launched in December in the Egyptian Theatre parking lot and accommodating 20 cars — the Arena Cinelounge sells gourmet popcorn online, shipped nationally. "We have 12 gourmet blends of Cinelounge popcorn. I have to lean on the popcorn revenue stream to bring in any revenue," says CEO and founder Christian Meoli.  However, Meoli explains that the popcorn's income — so far it has "grossed over $100,000 for us," he says — makes "below 90 percent of what we [normally] generate as a whole, as a business." Running the drive-in is not easy, either. "We're spending upward of five times what we would normally spend with our indoor business to make this happen," says Meoli, who's applying for aid under the COVID-19 relief bill. "The funding is vital to save a part of our culture, a part of our society. Who wants to lose theaters?" It also runs a virtual screening room for new releases at arenascreen.com.

GARDENA CINEMA

This Gardena theater has been run by the Kim family since 1976. For extra revenue during their drive-in screening series, which debuted last year in their large parking lot, they sell concession items and movie posters and feature Zoom interviews before special film showings, such as one with Jurassic Park cinematographer Dean Cundey. They also have rented out the theater for music videos and TV and film productions. Though the Gardena Cinema (gardenacinema.com) received a small Economic Injury Disaster Loan last year, they are also applying for help through the COVID-19 relief bill. Says manager Judy Kim, "I can use all the help I can get. I'm hoping it will get me through the pandemic until things are back to 'normal', whatever that will be." As for audience film tastes at the Gardena drive-in, Kim says that "audiences love the movies from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. There appears to be a yearning for the happy freedom of decades past."

LUMIERE CINEMA

The Beverly Hills theater is streaming indie and foreign films (at lumierecinema.la) and selling items from its concession stand during limited hours. "We tried to do drive-ins; it didn't work for us," says co-owner Peter Ambrosio, who also has started a GoFundMe campaign to help the theater survive, so far raising a little more than $12,000 of its $90,000 goal. Ambrosio is hoping that the stimulus relief bill "gives us the needed boost to weather the storm." Among the owners' frustrations is the lack of government guidance during the shutdown. Says Ambrosio: "[Government officials] don't offer guidelines for small business on how to deal with landlords, deal with taxes. If you are going to close all these businesses, why not create a liaison, or an arbitration system for dealing with rent, for dealing with taxes, just so small business can make plans?"

THE FRIDA CINEMA

Orange County's only nonprofit art house cinema is presenting films at pop-up drive-ins in various O.C. locations and streaming through its website (thefridacinema.org). Among their diverse film selection, the most popular genre is horror. “The drive-ins and streaming films have allowed us to continue our mission, but their collective box office doesn’t come close to mirroring the returns of a seven-day-a-week, two-screen cinema," explains Frida Cinema executive director and founder Logan Crow. "Every dollar really does make a tremendous impact." The theater also supplements income by selling merchandise, live-streaming special events and holding online fundraising marathons. Adds Crow, “Grants and initiatives like the COVID-19 Relief Bill allow us to fill in these gaps. If we are to survive this, sustain, and God willing, get to a point in the future where we can once again see some growth, we will need some very substantial support."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.