How One Art House Theater Rebranded as "Digital Drive-In" to Stay Afloat

Coral Gables Art Cinema - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Coral Gables Art Cinema

When Coral Gables Art Cinema was forced to close its doors on March 18, co-executive director Brenda Moe decided to take it digital, inviting patrons to "drive in" to flicks on the theater's website instead: “We have to be clever to keep our doors open."

Coral Gables Art Cinema is South Florida's highest-grossing single-screen theater, now ringing in its 10-year anniversary. But on March 17, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez issued an emergency order to close entertainment venues including movie theaters, concert houses and auditoriums in the area. Looking nationwide, larger chain theaters like Regal Cinemas closed all their locations indefinitely as of March 16, while AMC and Cinemark followed suit and went dark across all their U.S. screens on March 16 and March 17, respectively. As of Thursday, Miami-Dade County has now signed its own "safer-at-home" order, urging residents to stay home save for essential activities. 

So when the 141-seat theater was mandated by the city to close its doors on March 18 in an effort to curb large gatherings and possible exposure to the coronavirus crisis, co-executive director Brenda Moe had to figure out how to not only keep their passionate fan base satiated but also keep the theater's business afloat. 

Moe turned to the nostalgia of drive-in theaters, but in this case, encouraging patrons of the theater to "drive in" to the theater's website to watch public domain films, screening three new movies per day for free starting March 20. Meanwhile, all the old films they have programmed stay on the website for patrons to peruse at their leisure. "This whole drive-in thing was just a fluke, honestly," Moe tells The Hollywood Reporter. "My team and I were putting together a monthlong social media calendar and I found a catalog of public domain films that I could watch online. Initially, I thought, 'Oh, this would be interesting to suggest these for people to watch.' But I realized — let's do it for them."

On March 20, Moe convened with her team and they scrambled to launch the rebranded website. The gamble heartily paid off, with over 2,396 people visiting the "drive-in" to watch films like Phantom of the Opera and His Girl Friday.

Membership signups skyrocketed, Moe says. Yearly memberships for the theater include reduced prices on tickets, invitations to specialty screenings and friendship at a theater where Moe insists "everyone knows your name."

She continues, "Since we shut our doors, we have more members now than we've ever had. It's an easy way to support us and get something in return. People are buying gift cards to use when we open, they're making donations. We've seen the value that our patrons see in us, and we couldn't be happier about it."

When the theater first posted on its website in early March that its would be temporarily closed for two weeks, Moe shares that was only because "we had no idea what we're dealing with." As it will "definitely be longer" than anticipated, she and her team insist that keeping their patrons engaged with the cinema is vital for their survival as a theater: "We cannot afford to not be engaged. We just can't. We don’t have the bank balances of the AMC or the Regal, either. So for us, we have to be clever to keep our doors open. If we could keep up this momentum, we’ll definitely be OK."

Ordinarily, the bread and butter for the theater is first-run art house cinema, featuring foreign and American films like Parasite, with general admission ticket prices at $11.75 and membership prices at just $8 per screening. It also programs kids' and family films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Wizard of Oz (a total sellout for the cinema), where the theater seeks to "democratize the filmgoing experience" by making the program free for children 12 and under and for everyone else, it's "pay what you can."

The cinema also streams the National Theatre Live series, the taped performances of plays from the London playhouse, and late-night cult classics at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and it is looking forward to starting monthly musical screenings on Tuesdays, which are free for members and only $5 for everyone else.

But what the theater might be the most proud of is hosting movie nights for the local homeless shelter and sensory-friendly films for people with autism spectrum disorder and their families. "The lights are turned down a bit, the sound is turned down. We have a breakout space if you need to get out of the auditorium. Our entire staff is trained and compassionate in addressing the needs of this group of people," Moe says.

The patrons of these films are the exact fan base flocking to Coral Gables Art Cinema's social media and website, so much so that they even shut down the site. "Our mentions on Instagram stories have gone bonkers and we couldn't even keep up with trying to repost all of them," Moe says. "We got phone calls that our site went down because too many people were on it. People are really drawn to it right now."

The next step is to set up an online meet-up on social media to have a viewing party, with a public domain film projected onto the auditorium's screen and streamed online. "We're working out the technology right now, whether it's going to be a Facebook watch party or Instagram Live," Moe says. "We've seen everything that's been happening with the dance parties on Instagram Live, and we want to get this group of people who are super excited about this together to have that moviegoing experience and talk to each other while the movie is playing."

While Moe is unsure what the "new normal" will look like once the theater can reopen, she sees a silver lining for theater owners in that there is still an audience craving the cinematic experience in a physical theater. "Being in the movie theater business, the last year I would say has been a bit scary, because everybody has been talking about how movie theaters are dead and streaming is the new thing," she says. "But this crisis is really refocusing on people missing that shared experience of being in a theater, of why movie theaters are so valuable to our quality of life. There's nothing like going to the movies."