Things are starting to look up for some local movie theaters. A little bit, at least.
A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s still a long road back. But venues like the Princeton Garden Theatre have learned to adapt—with a little help from loyal patrons.
“On March 13 of last year when the first wave of closures started, we told our team we’d be back in two weeks, and we told our members ‘See you soon,’” said Chris Collier, the theater’s executive director.
That didn’t pan out. They reevaluated a week later and then decided to do some long-range planning about a month into the the pandemic.
“We really changed our view on things,” Collier said. “We planned for the worst case scenario and then doubled that. We didn’t anticipate things going back to normal anytime soon. That has pretty much come to pass.”
Arts-adjacent industries—movie theaters, concert venues, musicians—had to pivot pretty quickly to stay afloat last spring. The Garden was no different.
The theater has regularly hosted virtual screenings since last year, from arthouse films to Netflix watch parties with a corresponding live group chat on Discord. Independent, artful, international titles are regularly refreshed and available to rent on the Garden’s website.
“It’s the same content that would be screened if we were open to the public,” Collier said. “You can still have the feel of the theater even though you’re at home. Most of the titles we screen are not available on other streaming platforms, so you can only get them through sites like ours.”
And though those screenings are not necessarily paying the bills—Collier said they bring in “10s and 100s versus 100s and 1,000s”—they help keep the theater’s ideals afloat.
“We’re still fulfilling our mission,” Collier said. “It allows us to keep in touch with our patrons and let them know that we’re still around, and we’re still giving it a go.”
Collier said the technological elements of home screenings can be a hurdle for some patrons, but, overall, they have been a success.
“We don’t have to cancel events due to weather,” he said. “Seniors who might not want to go our at night are able to attend virtual events. It’s great to invite them in.”
The Garden’s virtual screenings eventually evolved into Q&A and discussion events, one of the theater’s in-person signatures. The theater hosts online education events and collaborates with professors, film critics, directors and local staples like the Princeton University Art Museum.
The guest will choose a film that patrons are invited to watch on their own time. A question and answer session over Zoom follows a couple of weeks later. These have been especially successful, Collier said.
“The discussions in the theater are always great, but it is an ask of a person to come in, find parking, get tickets and get to their seat in time for the speaker’s introduction and the movie,” he said. “Then the movie ends and the discussion starts. You may have left the house at 6, but once the discussion starts at 9:30, people are starting to get antsy, thinking about the parking meter, going to the bathroom, relieving the babysitter.”
Holding the events virtually, though, allows for a little more flexibility—for guests and hosts.
“Since you can watch the movie in advance, the discussion is the only event,” Collier said. “They’re ready to talk and they’re engaged because they’ve had more time to diges the film. These have been some of the best, most robust and most engaging film conversations that we’ve had in our history. That’s something that we’d like to keep going forward.”
Collier said the Garden has “dusted off” a number of reopening plans over the last year—in July, August, September, December—and is now looking at a tentative date for mid-March or early April.
That’s all dependent on a three-pronged approach that the theater has stuck to throughout the bulk of the pandemic.
First, they want clearance from the governor and municipality. Collier also want to make sure it’s safe to open—for staff, patrons, volunteers and the Princeton community as a whole. Finally, it has to be financially viable.
“We want to make sure that there is enough content and that the occupancy limits are sustainable,” Collier said. “It’s at 25 percent in New Jersey right now, but that’s not going to cover what it costs to bring a manager and projectionist back. A few people in the theater is not going to do it.”
That the Garden is able to even think about reopening, though, is entirely due to its patrons, Collier said.
“We wouldn’t even have been able to have conversations about looking to reopen without the support of our generous donors,” he said. “Our income from 2019-2020 dropped over 70 percent. If you took away any memberships or contributions, it would have been over 95 percent. That money has been the difference between closing for good and even thinking about reopening. Knowing that we’ve been given such incredible support from the community, we don’t want to squander that.”
The theater will continue to host virtual screenings and events until it’s able to reopen. Staff is also currently looking into pop-up outdoor screenings for when the weather gets warmer.
“Our theater is more than just a theater,” Collier said. “It’s a community center, a museum to film history, an education center. We think that those parts of our nonprofit mission are the things that will alow us to continue for years. The Garden Theatre is always going to have a future.”
Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau St., Princeton. (609) 279-1999. princetongardentheatre.org.