It’s been a bad year for theaters, like 500-year-flood bad. In August, the Los Angeles Times reported that the world’s largest cinema operator, AMC Theatres, lost $561 million in Q2 as its revenue dried up due to COVID closures. While drive-ins boomed this summer, in the Hudson Valley and nationwide, most small, independent indoor theaters have been limping along since March with streaming offerings, virtual events, and patron donations. Many towns even saw pop-up drive-ins, as the traditional theater experience was off the table.
In Beacon, the curated viewing club turned brick-and-mortar theater Story Screen has done a bit of everything to stay afloat. In the early pandemic months, founder Mike Burdge curated a rotating selection of new and newish independent flicks for online rental, such as Corpus Christi (2019). In April, the theater launched a membership program, offering subscribers exclusive access to film-oriented podcasts, articles, videos, and livestream events.
When summer rolled around, Story Screen took a queue from its outdoor counterparts and organized a pop-up drive-in at the Park at USC to fill the void of a communal movie-going experience. “We always talk about movies as an escape, but this time people were stuck at home, literally escaping their houses to come to this thing,” Burdge says. “It was really touching. Almost every single car would say things to us like, ‘We really appreciate what you’re doing. We love you. Thank you.’ It was an insanely rewarding experience.”
Governor Cuomo greenlighted indoor cinemas to reopen at 25% capacity as of October 23 after seven months shut, a decision that dovetailed with dropping temperatures and the end of drive-in season. For small upstate theaters like Story Screen, it was a reckoning moment. Many, including Upstate Films and the Rosendale Theatre, chose to remain closed.
Burdge and the Story Screen crew, however, decided to forge ahead. “Before bringing the employees in, we asked if everyone would be comfortable about this with extra accommodations for sanitation and safety,” Burdge says. “Once we got that out of the way, we were ready to go. Over the summer, we had made a bunch of improvements to our free air system and our ventilation.”
Even pre-COVID, Burdge had had the cinema’s three theaters outfitted with state-of-the-art ventilation systems, which completely replaced the air inside within 12 minutes. This summer, after inquiring with the health department what additional preemptive measures he could take, Burdge installed UV filters which disinfect the air both on its way in and its way out. (The system is not unlike those used on airplanes, which combine HEPA filtration and fresh air intake to clean and completely change the air in the cabin every three minutes.)
“We got [the ventilation system] because we wanted to make sure we could keep the air fresh as all times if we were going to pack everyone in,” Burdge says. “In developing Story Screen, the main thing was to make a movie theater that doesn’t have any of the problems movie theaters normally have—shoes sticking to the floor, popcorn crumbs on your seat. We wanted to treat it like a restaurant, where the tables get wiped down and reset between guests, where it is so clean it doesn't occur to you that someone was just there in your seat 30 minutes before.”
Now, of course, with COVID, it’s more like three hours than 30 minutes. The Story Screen team has implemented a rigorous cleaning protocol including spraying down all the seats with disinfectant and wiping down all the common touch areas like arm rests, push plates, and door handles with hospital-grade sanitizer in between every showing. “Add to that proper social distancing, proper seating arrangements, six-foot markers on the floor for the bathroom queue, and things like selling all the tickets in advance online—and we’re good,” Burdge says. Masks must be worn at all times when you’re not in your seat, and three to four seats are left between parties, with every other row taped off to create viable social distance.
Across its three theaters, Story Screen is offering 9 to 12 screenings a day, Wednesday through Sunday—at least while they troubleshoot. “We could fit more movie times in a day than we are, but we want ample time to really clean,” Burdge says. “We’re hoping to eventually get up to seven days a week. That will help get hours for our employees and help give people leeway to see a film. People so used to theaters being open daily.”
At 25-percent capacity the screening audiences are itty bitty. The largest theater, which normally seats 80 people, now takes 20. The smaller two, which normally seat 40 and 25 each, now house 14 and 6 respectively. “Just by nature of not selling out, we’ve had several people who have been alone in the theater and got a nice private screening,” Burdge says. “We’re still dealing with all of the regular cinema issues—maybe the movie times don’t work, earlier screenings don’t do as well, etc. We need to build up this trust with everyone else that we’re not just doing this because we are allowed to open, but because we have enough of a plan that we feel safe.”
Story Screen opened last weekend with Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster Tennet and Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks, starring Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. “We are so excited to be open, so excited to give people that unique escape,” Burdge says. “Safety is always at the very forefront of everything we do, every choice we make—from ticketing to concessions to seating and bathroom lines—so that we can sleep at night knowing that we’re bringing joy in the form of an escape and not endangering them for that escape.”
The marquee lineup for late November and December includes Mank; The Sound of Metal; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, screened as part of a limited theatrical release deal with Netflix. There is also some chance that Burdge will be able to add Nomadland, Wonder Woman 1984, and Ammonite to the queue, though the bigger the studio the less the guarantee. See the full line-up and buy your tickets.
Just as he compulsively checked the forecast all summer to figure out the fate of his drive-in on a given weekend, now Burdge obsessively watches New York State’s daily positivity rate, making sure it doesn’t pass two percent. “If that happens, we have a system in place to temporarily shut down and wait until we get the OK from the county to resume,” he says. “We are operating on a week-to-week basis. Even if we do everything right, we can’t control if we are going to be able to open next week. This is the new normal.”