When quarantine began in Oregon, back in March, Governor Kate Brown halted all gatherings of 25 people or more. At the time, many theaters in Oregon were still showing movies like 1917 and Parasite. What makes Oregon theaters different from the rest of the U.S. is that moviegoers rely heavily on independent cinemas that are struggling through COVID-19, rather than large owned companies such as AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. For instance, Portland has approximately twenty-five movie theaters, but only five of them are owned by large companies. Each of Oregon’s independent theaters has taken their approach to moviegoing during the pandemic. While some have stayed dark and hoped for the best, others like the Columbia Theatre and the St. Johns Twin Cinemas sell packs of concessions. The drive-in movie theatres in Oregon, such as the 99W and the M-F, continued their summer business with classic films and social distancing in their vehicles. Smaller indoor theaters like the Cinema 8 and Cinemagic got creative by selling packs of DVDs and concessions to keep their business running.
Unfortunately, their patience will not last forever with the hold Governor Kate Brown still has on social gatherings. In late August, Oregon movie theater owners petitioned to join bars and restaurants as part of the phase one reopenings. “Theater owners including Tom Ranieri of Portland’s Cinema 21, Doug Whyte of Portland’s Hollywood Theatre and Conners McMenamin of the McMenamins chain argued that they had space for social distancing and the experience with crowds to warrant the capacity of up to 100 that Phase 1 allows for bars and restaurants” but until phase two, theaters will only be allowed to host 25 people at a time (Notte 5).
For many owners and programmers, to survive, they must rethink the meaning of cinemas for the future in this pandemic:
The Oregon Theater, Portland –
Kevin Cavenaugh, former Peace Corps Architect, bought out a porn theater in April. He told the owner, who passed in May, that he would do something others would not: “save the building and bring the theater back”.
Built in 1925, the Oregon Theater was initially a 6,000-square-foot vaudeville palace. In the 1960s, the theater moved on to X-rated films and took on a reputation of seediness. It had not seen any maintenance for the past 40 years, but now there’s more light and it is clean; Many of the original features of the theater remain intact and ornate vaudeville detail. It is a vintage movie palace waiting to open.
The Hollywood Theatre, Portland –
Built in 1926, the Hollywood Theatre is Portland’s most intricate cinema palace. Since the pandemic shut down the Hollywood to audiences, the theater and its community have gone through several stages of coping and struggle to survive. They have sold to-go concessions from their lobby, hosted online screenings, streamed new releases, partnered with a hip hop artist and producer, and rented out its biggest theater space to parties of 10.
To end summer with a bang, the Hollywood Theatre teamed up with the Portland Expo Center to host drive-in screenings on the Expo Center’s wall. Films shown include Mad Max, Jurassic Park, and Beetlejuice.
To people’s surprise, membership for the Hollywood is doing better now than it was this time last year. People have stepped up and upgraded their memberships and even sent donations. Though the Hollywood promised their members they would make up for the lost time from closures, they know they can always rely on their members to support the theater if needed.
Northwest Film Center/Portland Art Museum, Portland –
After thirteen years of being apart of a Brooklyn-based Independent Filmmaker Project, Amy Dotson moved to Portland in the middle of 2019 to work with Northwest Film Center as the director and curator. Unfortunately, six months later, the film center’s screening room at the Portland Art Museum was closed by COVID-19.
“Dotson viewed it not as a crisis but as an existential question: What is cinema? Where can it be made and shown? What communities get to take part in it? Is an open theater — or a screen of any sort — necessary for its enjoyment?” (Notte 30).
Dotson viewed the Portland International Film Festival as the basis of a new idea: “an intersection of art, storytelling, and cinema”. With venues shut down, including the Northwest Film Center, the universal approach towards cinema accelerated.
The film center turned their cinema approach into a drive-in at Zidell Yards this summer showing favorites such as Creature From the Black Lagoon, E.T.and The Birds with broader offerings including The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, Knives, and Skin, and the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble.
The film center has found many ways to keep both the cinema alive and escape its more siloed definitions.
Cinema 21, Portland –
After COVID-19 hit, Tom Ranieri did what little he could; He teamed with distributors for virtual screenings and held benefit screenings with tickets selling at $99 apiece. In August, he decided to host socially distanced screenings with classic movies and capped crowds at 25 people. The money he made off his “Virtual Cinema” with distributors helped him enough to make him consider holding onto the theater post-pandemic.
Through his efforts and his petition for Kate Brown to reopen theaters, his goal is to prove to people that he can still run a theater and that people will still attend movies if you let them.
McMenamins theaters, Oregon and Washington –
Family-owned business, McMenamins has many branches such as wine, beer, coffee, restaurants, hotels, concerts, golf courses, and the movie empire. They have six first-run movie theaters and three second-run theaters in Oregon and Washington. While the theaters compromise between 2-4% of the business, they tend to draw their customers to other parts of McMenamins. At McMenamins, you can enjoy a movie while taking time to explore the gardens, restaurants, and other fun entertainment the property has to offer.
About 60 employees were directly affected by the closures and while some were able to shift to other parts of the McMenamins operations, it was a bit tougher on those who worked at venues such as the Bagdad Theater and Mission Theater in Portland. Fortunately, they were able to use the Old. St. Francis School theater in bed and it’s Olympia Club theater in Centralia to try out social-distancing strategies. They closed off and removed seats, updated software to space out guests, and played with concessions and ideas like in-seat food delivery; This allowed McMenamins to use social-distancing strategies from its restaurants to give their movie theaters a chance to return after the pandemic.
This blog post was written by Krista Pham, our intern.
The article that inspired this piece can be found, here.