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Checking In on CBUS Indie Cinemas

Hope Madden Hope Madden Checking In on CBUS Indie CinemasPhoto by Susan Post
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What do you miss? I miss free beverage refills. Opening a new can of Diet Coke every time I finish the last instead of hitting the soda fountain at Chipotle is costing me a fortune.

I also miss going to the movies.

A lot of us in CBUS do, and more than that, we’re worried about the future for our favorite movie spots. Among Columbus’ many gifts are five incredible independent cinemas. Grandview, Clintonville, Bexley and OSU campus (twice!) are enriched by independently-run, beloved movie theaters that bring us foreign films, cult classics, independent gems, restorations, filmmakers, film festivals and Dude-a-thons.

How are things going for them?

It could be better. The Gateway Film Center had to lay off about 85% of its staff, although president and programmer Chris Hamel says he expects many of these teammates to return once the health crisis is over.

Says Andy Wuelfing, co-owner and manager of Grandview Theater and Drafthouse, “Some of us have had to go on unemployment, but not all of us.”

How else has the closure affected the independents?

“The number one thing is that audiences are not able to enjoy our programs in person,” says Dave Filipi, director of film/video at the Wexner Center for the Arts. “We’re offering new releases through our website, and we’re able to offer interviews with filmmakers, but of course, it’s not the same as the true theatrical experience.”

The Wex is not the only theater offering streaming services from their website. Gateway Film Center and the Drexel Theatre also make films available for digital viewing, an option that offers a small revenue stream to the theaters while allowing them to continue to connect with viewers.

“The feedback we have received has been very positive,” Filipi says. “I’ve even heard from some regulars who are having streaming parties around our films. That’s nice to hear.”

The theaters are also brainstorming additional programming options.

“We continue to ask ourselves, ‘How do we serve artists and how do we serve our audience?’ Even with the uncertainty, those questions drive what we do,” Filipi says.

Drexel, Wexner and Gateway have all unveiled new programming.

“Currently our programming committee is working on a number of new programs,” says Hamel. “For example, we launched Conversations from the Center, and new chances exist for patrons to engage with this program each Tuesday and Friday at 6:00 p.m.”

“Perhaps our biggest event this fall is going to be the debut of our current Cinetracts ’20 project,” Filipi says. “We have commissioned 20 filmmakers from all around the world to make short films that reflect the zeitgeist in their specific location. We are already starting to plan for an online contingency, and we might be able to make it even more accessible, which is exciting given the great array of participating filmmakers.”

So that’s what they’re doing now. How can the theaters prepare for the future?

At this time, we are planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” says Hamel. “Many of our programming decisions need to be delayed until we have confirmed our reopening date. We remain focused on keeping our community safe.”

“The uncertainty is the most difficult thing,” says Filipi. “We’ve had to postpone a number of events with visiting filmmakers. Will they be able to come in July? September? Not at all? It makes planning difficult.”

One concern is product, or lack thereof. Hollywood has had to disband production, after all.

“I would be a little nervous if I were running a 24-screen theater,” says Jeremy Henthorn, director of the Drexel Theatre. “We only need to sustain three. And we have a fan base that will come to classic cinema or more cult cinema, those types of things. I think the smaller you are, in a lot of instances, the better off you’re going to be.”

Studio 35 Co-Owner and Manager Eric Brembeck agrees.

“We’re already talking about it, but it’s hard to do because it’s so unknown,” he says. “Eventually we’ll be fine. We work at it. We’re not just a movie theater, we’re a destination. And this is just going to make us plan even harder and smarter.”

Wuelfing plans to lean on what the Grandview is known for: beer tastings, retro programming and events.

“That’s what was driving the train,” he says. “The success of this place, especially early on, was reliant on the events. We know how to do them so they’re really fun. I’m confident because I know we can fly by the seat of our pants.”

How can Columbus help these theaters tread water until they can reopen for business? Visit the theater websites, make a donation, buy a gift card, purchase a t-shirt, watch a movie, buy a membership.

“Come buy pizza,” Bremeck suggests—Studio 35 is open Thursday through Sunday for pizza take out, and both 35 and the Grandview Theater have cocktails and growlers to take home.

But will audiences ever come back?

“There is concern in the field – even from big theater chains – that audiences are just being trained to stay at home and watch,” Filipi says. 

“I predict a shift in moviegoing and I actually predict it positively,” Henthorn says. “Absence will make the heart grow fonder. It’s just not as fun to watch a movie in your house versus seeing it with an engaged, like-minded crowd. I think people are going to remember why they loved going to the theater in the first place.”

“The thing that is going to help the most is that when we reopen – and I say this for all theaters – the independent theaters in town will take every safety precaution,” say Henthorn. “So just come back when it’s time to come back.”

What do we do until the next Hitchcocktober or the next SciFi marathon?

“There’s one drive in in Columbus – the South drive-in,” Brembeck points out. “They should theoretically kill it.”

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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