When you get as many rainy days and dry summers as Oregon, moviegoing becomes a core part of the state’s culture. A little thing like a pandemic has not changed that.
When Gov. Kate Brown halted all gatherings of 25 people or more back on March 17, many theaters in Oregon were still showing recent Oscar winners like 1917 and Parasite. Unlike the rest of the U. S. — where more than a quarter of the nation’s 5,798 movie theaters and drive-ins are owned by large companies including AMC, Regal and Cinemark — Oregon moviegoers rely heavily on independent cinemas that are struggling through COVID-19.
Portland, for instance, has roughly two dozen movie theaters within its city limits. Of those 25 theaters, just five are owned by large companies: four by Regal and one by Cinemark. The rest are on their own, and range from the second-run Avalon Theater built in 1912 to the first-run Studio One arthouse opened in 2019.
Since closing for COVID-19, each of Oregon’s independent theaters has taken its own approach to moviegoing during the pandemic. Some have stayed dark and hoped for the best. Others like the Columbia Theatre in St. Helens and the St. Johns Twin Cinemas in Portland sell packs of concessions.
While the 99W Drive-In in Newberg and the M-F Drive-In in Milton-Freewater continued their summer business with classic films and social distance, smaller indoor facilities like the Cinema 8 in Canby and Cinemagic in Portland are getting creative: selling bundles of DVDs and concessions to keep afloat.
But their patience will not last forever. In late August, Oregon movie theater owners petitioned Gov. Kate Brown to join bars and restaurants as part of counties’ Phase 1 business 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 the 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. Until Phase 2, theaters can only host 25 patrons at a time.
We spoke with Ranieri, McMenamin, Whyte and other theater owners to see how they are holding up. Until they are able to reopen, theaters are relying on memberships, streaming offerings, socially distanced screenings, private events, outdoor movies and more just to stay afloat. For a few owners and programmers, survival means rethinking the meaning of cinema or its role in the future of certain movie palaces.
The Oregon Theater, Portland
Kevin Cavenaugh is not one for dumb decisions. The former Peace Corps architect has built standout Portland structures like the Fair-Haired Dumbbell on the east side of the Burnside Bridge and the Zipper commercial stretch on Sandy Boulevard.
So why pay $1.8 million in April for a porn theater and palace of exhibitionist sex that has Cavenaugh and his workers “pressure washing the inside as much as the outside?” Because he told owner Gayne Maizels, who died in May, that he would do something other buyers would not: save the building and bring the theater back.
“It was the dumbest decision of mine for 2020 but, as I’m sitting here with you today, it’s turning out to be probably our least risky project,” Cavenaugh says.
Built in 1925 by Maizels’ grandfather, Aladdin Theater founder Isaac Geller, the Oregon Theater was initially a 6,000-square-foot vaudeville palace. That glimmer faded by the 1960s, when the Oregon Theater moved on to X-rated films. It took on a reputation and a certain seediness, but it also kept its bones intact.
“It hadn’t seen any love. I’ll rephrase that: It hadn’t seen any maintenance for 40 years,” Cavenaugh says. “Now there’s more light and it’s clean and the mattresses have been removed.”
As Cavenaugh points out, a ’60s- to ’70s-era grindhouse with no real updates can sound gross, but it also means many of the original features remain. Above a flat dropped ceiling is the original, ornate vaudeville detail. With no loud-carpet and purple-seat ’90s remodels, it is a vintage movie palace in waiting.
It also still shares space with two storefronts that Cavenaugh is renting out to a bar/restaurant and a florist. On its second floor, two two-bedroom apartments are being renovated and are already spoken for. By keeping the building in its original footprint and using their resources for their original purpose, Cavenaugh has avoided triggering the costly seismic upgrades that could make his project prohibitively expensive.
With leases on those other spaces enough to cover the building’s mortgage and Portland’s theaters still largely closed, Cavenaugh can take his time. He has three businesses competing for the theater space, and had the Hollywood Theatre interested in running it before COVID-19 struck.
“We’d been in talks with Kevin, and we were very excited about the idea of expanding to another venue,” Hollywood executive director Doug Whyte says. “When all this hit and we sat down and tried to think about the future, we decided to protect the Hollywood, protect Movie Madness and not commit to another lease.”
Cavenaugh sees a day, five to 10 years down the road, when Portland’s theaters are packed again. When it does, he will have a theater at 35th and Southeast Division in a thriving restaurant district to greet moviegoers when they return.
“From food to experience, there’s such amazing local, unique, compelling, thoughtful, curated food out there, and it’s the same with movies,” he says. “I’ve walked into a Regal Cinemas and thought ‘Am I in Dallas, am I in New York, am I in Milwaukee?’ It doesn’t really matter because it’s a franchise, and Portlanders hate that.”
The Hollywood Theatre, Portland
Built in 1926, the Hollywood Theatre is Portland’s ornate cinema palace on Sandy Boulevard. But as COVID-19 taught everyone who was not one of the Hollywood’s nearly 4,500 members or more than 40 staffers, it is a whole lot more than just its building.
Doug Whyte, executive director of the Hollywood Theatre in Portland Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
“We had been about brick and mortar and a theater where people could gather together and watch things on film, or a video store where people could pick out movies and browse 84,000 titles,” says Doug Whyte, executive director of the Hollywood Theatre. “It kind of pulled the rug out from under us.”
Since the pandemic shut down the Hollywood to audiences in March, the theater and its community have gone through several stages of coping. The Hollywood has sold to-go concessions from its lobby; hosted online screenings of Oregon-made films; streamed new releases; partnered with RZA, a hip-hop artist and producer best known for his work with the Wu-Tang Clan, on kung fu screenings; and rented out its biggest theater space to parties of 10.
It has also rented films from the Movie Madness video store it purchased in 2017, had staff suggest films in “Hollywood at Home” online video segments and hosted online film classes through its Movie Madness University program (where classes have grown from 16 people to more than 100).
To cap off the summer, it teamed with the Portland Expo Center to host drive-in screenings of films including Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic Park and Beetlejuice on the Expo Center’s wall, with help from sponsors including the Love Portland real estate group.
“There’s been some grant funding, our PPP funding, we own our building outright and we have a healthy reserve,” Whyte says. “We’ll be OK, we’ll make it: Right now, it’s just a matter of staying fully staffed up.”
In a few ways, the theater’s efforts are a throwback to the Hollywood’s roots as the nonprofit Oregon Film and Video Foundation, which was founded in 1992. In 1997 that group purchased the Hollywood Theatre and made the building its home. When Regal closed its Broadway Metroplex in 2011, members salvaged its seats and sound system for the Hollywood.
When it needed a new marquee in 2013, members kicked in for that as well. After bringing back 70-millimeter projection in 2015, the Hollywood got members to spend $25,000 to purchase a 70-millimeter print of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 2018. When the theater closed in March, it was in the middle of a fundraiser to renovate its lower facade.
“Our membership is actually doing better now than it was this time last year,” Whyte says. “People are stepping up and upgrading their memberships to a higher level or sending donations. I think that without that big member base, we would be struggling.”
While the Hollywood has promised members that it would tack on additional time to their memberships to make up for the closure, its leadership also knows that it can rely on members to support the theater if it needs their help. Through the Hollywood’s petition to Gov. Brown, Whyte has made it clear that the theater hopes it will not come to that.
“It’s been pretty heartening to see everyone step up, knowing they aren’t getting any benefits,” Whyte says. “If the time comes when we ask for a renewal, it would probably be pretty successful.”
Northwest Film Center/Portland Art Museum, Portland
After nearly 13 years at the Brooklyn-based Independent Filmmaker Project, Amy Dotson moved to Portland in mid-2019. By September of that year, Dotson was the Northwest Film Center’s director and curator. Little more than six months later, the film center’s screening room — the Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum — was closed by COVID-19. The center’s classes were canceled, and its equipment room was closed to aspiring filmmakers.
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?
“I was kind of hired upon that construct — not knowing that the world was going to turn on its head — to really think about the future of the film center and how cinema today can take so many forms and formats,” she says. “My 11-year-old watches stuff on his phone, my daughter is really into VR, my parents are really into podcasts. I would argue that all of those things are cinematic in the way they are told.”
Northwest Film Center and Portland Art Museum’s drive-in screening of Xanadu at Zidell Yards next to the Ross Island Bridge Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Dotson saw the Portland International Film Festival as the embodiment of that ideal: an intersection of art, storytelling and cinema. But with venues closed and the Northwest Film Center itself shuttered for five months, that more universal approach toward cinema accelerated.
The film center hosted its “Cinema Unbound” drive-in at Zidell Yards this summer, pairing drive-in favorites like 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.
In September the film center and museum served as the U.S. home of the Venice Biennale’s virtual reality film festival, Venice VR Expanded. Portland moviegoers saw the virtual reality works of 44 artists from 24 countries, with help from the 4,500 square feet of social distance at the museum’s Fields Ballroom and ultraviolet boxes used to sterilize virtual reality headsets.
While the film center has had to reduce staff and reduce its budget since COVID-19 struck, Dotson has heard from distributors that Portland is one of the top-grossing cities for its virtual programming. With help from streaming revenue, drive-in revenue and Venice VR, the film center is finding ways to both keep cinema alive and escape its more siloed definitions.
“There’s a very robust creative scene here in the city, but we see our talent debuting films at Sundance, or working on projects on the television side in Atlanta or in Prague,” Dotson says. “The Whitsell is amazing and we love having a wonderful theater that is part of the Portland Art Museum, but our focus for the next 18 months is going to be what can we do to preserve the cinematic experience outside the theater.”
Cinema 21, Portland
Tom Ranieri weathered the advent of home video and every iteration from videotape to streaming. He watched chain theaters flood into Portland and saw some, including Regal and Sundance, close up shop.
He has seen the 94-year-old theater where he has spent the past 40 years — as both an employee and now as its owner — play classics to half-empty houses as a one-screener, and watched The Room and its enigmatic director Tommy Wiseau draw crowds that stretched around the block during Wiseau’s annual appearances after Cinema 21 expanded to three screens in 2013.
After COVID-19 hit, Ranieri did what little he could. He teamed with distributors for streamed virtual screenings. When he was told he could have only 25 people in his theater, he held some benefit screenings with tickets selling at $99 apiece. With much of that four-show run selling out, Ranieri decided in August to host socially distanced screenings of classic movies. He capped crowds at 25 people and launched the series with MGM’s 1952 Technicolor musical tale of film-industry upheaval, Singin’ in the Rain.
Ranieri notes that even the “pennies on the dollar” he has made off of his “Virtual Cinema” streaming arrangements with distributors have helped enough to make him consider holding onto it post-pandemic.
Meanwhile, the online map of seats he has been using for ticketing will likely stick around too, especially as moviegoers attempt to feel comfortable again. Through those efforts, and his petition to Gov. Brown, he would like to prove to his staff, to his customers and to film distributors that he can still run a theater and that people will go to the movies if you let them.
“We have to take the baby steps that we can, given the present circumstances,” Ranieri says. “We’re thinking ‘What can we do now that will begin the long road back to some sort of normalcy?’ People need hope; we need it in the industry and the public does too.”
McMenamins theaters, Oregon and Washington
Conners McMenamin has been in the family business since he was 15. The son of Brian McMenamin — co-founder of the McMenamins beer, wine, coffee, restaurant, hotel, concert, golf course and movie theater empire — Conners did dishes and bussed tables before heading off to college and getting his engineering degree. After a brief stint at Intel in Sacramento, he came back to McMenamins eight years ago and took over its theater operations within the last year.
McMenamins has six first-run movie theaters and three second-run theaters in Oregon and Washington. The former tend to draw more moviegoers while the latter provides low-cost pricing and flexible event space. While the theaters comprise between just 2% and 4% of the company’s business, they tend to draw customers to other parts of McMenamins’ business.
“How many people come enjoy a movie at Edgefield without taking the time to explore the gardens, restaurants and countless other adventures the property holds?” Conners says. “Without [movie theaters] in operation, we are sorely missing a key experience at our locations.”
Roughly 60 McMenamins employees were directly affected by the theaters’ closing. While some were able to shift to restaurants, breweries and other parts of McMenamins’ operations, that is a bit tougher to pull off at venues like the one-screen Bagdad Theater and Mission Theater in Portland.
But as counties outside the Portland metro area slowly reopen to business, McMenamins has been able to use its Old St. Francis School theater in Bend and its Olympia Club theater in Centralia, Washington, to experiment with social-distancing strategies.
It has closed off and removed seats, updated software to space out guests, and tinkered with concessions and ideas like in-seat food delivery. While that does not solve issues like movie distribution or first-run streaming, it allows McMenamins to use social-distancing strategy from its restaurants to give its movie theaters a chance to return after the pandemic.
“I am not convinced we lose our audience,” Conners says. “There is nothing more fun than watching a family come out to see a classic movie with the kids at the Kennedy School theater. For years, we have played movies there that you can see at home with success.”
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