culture

Oregon Movie Theaters Struggle For Survival

By Eric Slade (OPB)
May 9, 2020 1 p.m.

On a recent Wednesday morning Doug Whyte unlocked the heavy wooden doors to the now empty Hollywood Theatre. Whyte, executive director at the Hollywood, was there to make his daily rounds. “We need to keep an eye on this 1926 historic movie palace,” he said, to make sure “the building has not been tagged or vandalized, that there are no leaks or plumbing issues.”

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The Hollywood Theatre in NE Portland, like all indoor theatres in Oregon, has been shut down since mid-March.

The Hollywood Theatre in NE Portland, like all indoor theatres in Oregon, has been shut down since mid-March.

Photo by Dan Halsted, courtesy The Hollywood Theatre.

Portland has more independent movie theaters than any city in the country, and historic movie houses are dotted across the state. But since mid-March all indoor cinemas have been shut down, putting their futures in jeopardy. Movie theaters operate on razor thin margins. Even before the pandemic many were barely getting by, so shutting down for months is a big blow.

In many ways the Hollywood Theatre is an exception. They’re a nonprofit with over 4000 paying members, and they own their building. Even so, they still have monthly bills to tackle.

To generate income during this down time the Hollywood has begun hosting virtual screenings like the recent Ashland-produced film, Phoenix, Oregon. Customers rent the film from the Hollywood website, then screen at home. Many other theaters have also embraced the virtual screening model.

“So it's a little bit of revenue for us,” Whyte says, and “it's good for the distributors because we're shooting out their movies to our audience who are the people who are wanting to see it anyway.”

These virtual screenings don’t bring in much money – nothing like filling theatres with a paying audience. But for now, it helps,

On a recent Friday night in St. Helens, Oregon, a long line of cars snaked down the main drag, headed for the Columbia Theatre. Owners Leah and Lance Tillotson have figured out another way to generate income while their theaters sit empty. On Friday nights they sell buckets of popcorn to customers who line up in cars. In the first weeks of the sale, cars sometimes waited up to an hour to pay their $5. The Tillotsons also own the Mt. Hood Theatre in Gresham, where they sell their popcorn on Saturday nights.

“We wear a mask and gloves,” Leah Tillotson says. “We don't touch their money, they put it in a bowl. We’ve figured out how to keep everybody safe.”

The Columbia Theatre in St. Helens is offering drive up popcorn sales on Friday evenings to raise funds while their theatre is closed.

The Columbia Theatre in St. Helens is offering drive up popcorn sales on Friday evenings to raise funds while their theatre is closed.

Photo by Eric Slade.

Tillotson says they sell between 250 and 400 buckets a night. “And I know this isn't about popcorn. They are just trying to help make sure that those businesses are still there when all this is over.”

There is still one theater screening movies in Oregon: the M-F Drive In in Milton-Freewater. Owner Mike Spiess worked out a plan with the Oregon Department of Health, creating a safer way for his audiences to watch films.

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“We've doubled the distance that they need to park away from each other to about 8 feet,” Spiess said. “We hand out our guidelines when they come in.” He limits the attendance to around 125 cars per night. So far he says it’s working. “They have been excellent at following all the social distancing guidelines.”

Some theater operators have looked into the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program. The program offers low interest loans to hire back employees. But for many, with their theaters shuttered, the loans don’t make sense.

“Theaters are going to probably be one of the last ones that get to open back up,” Leah Tillotson says. “And so to take a loan out to pay payroll but you can't actually open, just isn't hugely helpful at all.”

Doug Whyte at the Hollywood did apply for money from the Payroll Protection Program. On Monday he found out his application was successful. The funding will allow him bring back staff to work on fundraising, virtual screenings and to keep the theater ready for its eventual reopening.

Whyte thinks some people won’t come back to theaters until there’s an effective vaccine. But he believes most people are ready to return if theaters figure out a way to open safely, initially to audiences as small as 50. He’s busy strategizing how to do that.

“In our main auditorium we have 384 seats. And we would figure out a seating layout where no one would ever sit closer than six feet. The other seats would be blocked off. The tricky part is, is do you let two people sit together? But if so, that throws everything off," he said.

Whyte also wonders if it makes economic sense to reopen to such limited numbers. The costs of showing a film to a packed house and to a theater with just 50 people are almost the same. But with a lot fewer ticket sales and without a crowd to buy popcorn and drinks, the Hollywood makes a lot less money.

And the other question? Will there even be movies to show? “A lot of the studios,” Whyte wonders, “are they really going to want to release their film when I can only have sell 50 tickets?”

Meanwhile audiences are getting used to watching movies at home, and major studios are premiering first run films for online streaming, skipping the theatrical release altogether. It’s possible this long shutdown of theaters could shift viewing patterns forever.

Amy Dotson, director of the NW Film Center in Portland, believes no matter what happens, movies will endure.

“They are the stories that we tell each other to understand the world and to understand each other better.” She believes this moment can help remind us that cinema doesn’t always need a silver screen.

“There are things that could use some innovation for equity and for other reasons, just to make sure that we know that cinema … can live on the walls, it can live on the floors, it can live on your phone and certainly it can live in a beautiful cinema with beautiful sound and be a communal experience.”

Doug Whyte thinks all this time staying apart has reminded us how much we like to be together. Though Netflix offers us more movies than we could ever watch in a lifetime, he believes most people long to return to a movie theater.

“They're tired of sitting on their couch and scrolling and picking a movie to stream,” he says.

“The idea of going out, and having a beer, and talking about the movie in the lobby afterward — I think if anything, people are going to come out of this and appreciate that experience even more.”

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