Theaters across the city are dusting off their projectors.
Theaters across the city are dusting off their projectors. Credit: Rebecca Lyon

This time last year, the film-loving farceur behind the Music Box Theatre’s beloved Twitter account—now restored to its former glory after a bogus several-week suspension due to supposed copyright infringement—replied to a tweet from a film fan in a conversation about Christopher Nolan: “Keep your fingers crossed that this is all over in time for TENET in July!”

July came around, the pandemic was very much not over, and the response to Tenet, which Warner Brothers released to theaters despite hesitancy among exhibitors and audiences alike, was lukewarm in all respects. Moviegoers were wary about the prospect, and, if they did journey out to see it, were largely disappointed by what they found: a film that was too loud, too confusing, and, perhaps most frustratingly, was being viewed in an atmosphere devoid of the usual joviality that surrounds such summer behemoths, good or bad.

Now, more than a full year after the initial lockdown, amidst the rollout of a vaccine few thought would have arrived so soon, audiences are returning to theaters in double-masked, socially-distanced droves for the spectacle that is Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong—the keyword here being spectacle. Catching up recently with the Music Box Theatre’s general manager, Ryan Oestreich, he confessed that seeing the two titans of cinema battle it out was the big-screen display he’d hoped Tenet would be, so much so that it caused a distinct emotional response. “I . . . might have teared up a little bit,” he says. Later, he elaborated, “No matter if you love arthouse films or specific genres of movies, whatever it is that you love, there’s something that pulls you to the cinema.”

The Music Box is one of several local theaters, film festivals, and organizations dedicated to cinema that have felt the strain of the past year but are nevertheless hopeful about the future. In conversations with managers, programmers, and theater workers around the city (most of whom, full disclosure, I know from my own tenure in the Chicago film community), a few consistent themes emerged, the most prevalent being optimism, tenacity, and a yearning to finally be back at the movies while looking to apply lessons gleaned during the pandemic. The Music Box, specifically, has been one of the less-commercial venues pioneering the in-person experience; they reopened for the first time in July (just in time for Tenet), closed again in November, reopened again in February, and recently expanded their showtimes to seven days a week in late March.

This progress comes after a hellish year for exhibitors who rely on in-person screenings for most or all of their revenue. “Sadly we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Oestreich. “We had to let go of veteran staff who know the business, who know the job.” With the extended showtimes and the possibility of expanding their capacity in coming weeks or months, he says they’ll first look to hire back workers they let go, though it’s possible some will have moved on to other jobs. This is another theme among exhibitors—the first right of refusal for previously existing and even new positions being reserved for staff who had been laid off.

After Godzilla vs. Kong, the Music Box will present, in addition to their ongoing virtual cinema, a week of Oscar contenders, the much-lauded “pig movie” Gunda, a series of heist films, and, in early May, they’ll reopen their garden for movies on the patio seven nights a week. Horror fans can look forward to a “Halfoween” drive-in event with Creepy Co. at the end of April and the beginning of May, and the annual Music Box of Horrors is already on the books for October.

Another way the Music Box has made up for lost revenue is through theater rentals, a tactic being employed by various players across the city, ranging from neighborhood theaters, like the New 400 Theater and the Davis Theater, to sprawling multiplexes, with theater chains such as AMC (whose Navy Pier IMAX location, however, has closed permanently) and ShowPlace ICON offering new and older releases for private screenings at some locations alongside truncated showtimes open to the public. ShowPlace ICON is even offering audiences the chance to rent out theaters to play video games; meanwhile locations for another prominent chain, Regal Cinemas, have remained closed indefinitely, and it was just recently announced that the ArcLight Theaters in Chicago and Glenview will not reopen at all. Some theaters are operating exclusively in the rental space, like the New 400 and the Harper Theater, whose event planner, Brittany Low-Lipsey, remarked that the dearth of new releases is partly the reason for that. “Once Hollywood opens completely and starts sending movies to theaters, then we will open to the public,” she says. “At the moment, the private theater rental is working better for us.”

Facets is another local theater dabbling in virtual releases and private rentals. Long-time programmer Charles Coleman said the theater is planning a “ramped-up reopening” beginning in late June, when the Facets Film Camps will also return using a hybrid model. In order to keep audiences safe, and despite their revenue decreasing by 35 percent, they’ve invested in “ventilation upgrades and will implement reserved spaced-out seating along with mask guidelines and increased cleanings,” Coleman says, echoing the precautions being taken by other theaters. Some upgrades, however, are a little more fun: “We have given our public first floor spaces a facelift,” he says, “creating hangout spaces for cinema lovers with an expanded snack and coffee menu.”

While other theaters have already or anticipate opening at reduced capacities, the Gene Siskel Film Center says they won’t—they can’t, really—open until they’re able to do so at full capacity. “We can’t make payroll and everything if we’re not at 100 percent,” says executive director Jean de St. Aubin. “We can’t cover all of our expenses.” The Film Center had been thinking about late July as a potential opening date but are reconsidering that—as many theaters likely are—as COVID-19 cases rise amidst the dreaded fourth wave. Still, she says that much of what they’ve learned this past year will continue even as the theater reopens, specifically referencing their virtual cinema, the Screen to Screen conversations, and their robust lecture series, which has brought such luminaries as critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ann Hornaday, programmer Sergio Mims, and filmmakers John Sayles and Jennifer Reeder to audiences across the country in the comfort and safety of their homes.

During this time, partly because of the shutdown but mostly due to the events of last summer, many theaters and institutions are reevaluating the diversity of both their organizational structures and their programming. “One of the other silver linings of this year, this pause, is really looking at our programming, and our staff, and our board, and the cultural makeup of the city, and of us,” says de St. Aubin. “And our staff does not reflect our diverse programming or the cultural makeup of the city. One of our priorities as we start rehiring is really making sure that we’re inclusive and that we’re diverse. That’s really a top priority.”

There’s a lot to look forward to when the Film Center reopens, though it may be a slow rollout, with events geared toward members and donors to thank them for their support during this time. That will also allow for the theater’s staff, returning and new, to become reacquainted with the ins and outs of running a movie theater, especially during what we all hope will be the tail end of a global pandemic. In some ways, “it’s like opening a movie theater for the first time,” says the Film Center’s programming director, Rebecca Fons, who did just that when she rehabilitated an old theater in her hometown. It’s an apt metaphor for theater workers and moviegoers alike, for whom a return to cinemas may feel like the first time, so physically and mentally unfamiliar might the experience seem as people adjust to the world post-COVID. It will, of course, be worth it: the Siskel, for example, is already planning what they’ll show when they’re fully reopened, including retrospectives and events such as their annual Black Harvest Film Festival, which both de St. Aubin and Fons are confident will be in-person, though there will still be a virtual component, as it allows for the filmmakers involved to receive even more exposure.

Conversations at the Edge (CATE), a program of the Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which takes place at the Film Center, will also embrace a hybrid model in the fall, with “some programs happening in the theater, some online, and some spanning both,” per curator Amy Beste. CATE is among many programs and venues in the city that excel in nontraditional programming. Block Cinema at Northwestern University, which, like CATE, has transitioned some of its offerings online, will also pursue a hybrid model once they’re back in person, a proposition contingent on guidance from the school.

Another local venue attached to higher education, Doc Films at the University of Chicago, plans to reopen in the fall, along with the school, though it’s likely they won’t be at full capacity until early 2022. Hannah Halpern, Doc’s current programming chair, says that one of the biggest struggles faced by the student-run film society is their “dwindling number of volunteers.” In order to “help make the transition to opening back up easier,” they’re “in the process of organizing a projectionist booth workshop called ‘Booth Camp’ in an attempt to remind . . . [apprentice projectionists] how to project.” It would seem we’re all a little rusty.

Smaller, independent venues have been largely sidelined this past year, with microcinemas such as the Nightingale Cinema and filmfront having ceased in-person screenings indefinitely. In addition to being a cinema, the Nightingale is also a residence currently occupied by three people. Its director, Emily Eddy, says that “it would feel complicated and a bit scary to invite the public into our living space,” a dilemma faced by many DIY venues where community members also live. The organizers behind filmfront, Malia Haines-Stewart and Alan Medina, who also run the bookshop Inga in the space, face similar conundrums but have embraced the respite during this era of tumultuousness. “[We’ve] given ourselves permission to take time off and let the project and ourselves rest during this transitional time,” says Haines-Stewart. “Since we’re not part of a larger organization or a ticket-selling/profit model, there isn’t necessarily the same urgency to reopen. In some ways we’re in a more flexible position, but also without the structure, there’s less support in a challenging time.” Both venues plan to pursue outdoor screenings going into the summer.

One of the biggest pandemic pivots has been whole film festivals transitioning from in-person events to online, often with a few drive-in screenings to supplement the digital offerings. This was the case for last year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, whose next edition, cofounder and artistic director Bryan Wendorf tells me, is on hold until they’re able to be back in theaters at full capacity. This year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival also has a drive-in component, though it’s otherwise entirely online. The festival’s founder, Pepe Vargas, plans to continue with the virtual screenings, even as they’ll “be at the theaters most definitely” this time next year. Also in progress right now is the Asian Pop-Up Cinema, a festival-like film series that transitioned online with select screenings at the drive-in, including upcoming shows of Minari, a nominee for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Coming up in early summer, the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival will take place online with some outdoor screenings and installations accessible outside from a distance.

Mimi Plauché, artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival, says, “Right now we’re preparing to be ready for both in-person and online” for their annual fall event. Though they still have some months ahead of them before this year’s edition of the festival, Plauché says she and her team are assessing how it went last year and looking to apply those insights to this year. “There were some really nice outcomes from last year, despite the circumstances,” she says.

“The past year . . . has given us the opportunity to evaluate who we are, how we do what we do, and how we can do it better. As many challenges as it presented, I think there’s also the possibility of continuing to have positive outcomes, that once we get through it, it will further be able to elevate film as an artistic medium that both changes the way we see the world and brings people together.”

Along those lines, the Chicago Film Society—who, pre-pandemic, showed a variety of films on 16-millimeter, 35-millimeter, and 70-millimeter at Northeastern Illinois University and the Music Box Theatre—has taken this time to focus on a lot of things more tangentially related to film exhibition. They’ve released two issues of a zine, Infuriating Times, and started a projector loan program, which allows people to borrow projectors and films to project at home—there’s currently a two-month wait list. They’ve also gotten a new office space, where they’re storing many of the prints from their collection, and will be collaborating with the Metrograph in New York on a virtual guest program. They have an outdoor screening planned for early July with Comfort Film at Comfort Station, who themselves are planning for three months of open-air programming this summer, including collaborations with Sophia Wong Boccio from Asian Pop-Up Cinema and South Side Projections, as well as a continuation of their Silent Films and Loud Music series.

Exhibition-wise, Rebecca Hall and Rebecca Lyon from the Chicago Film Society say they’re thinking that they’ll return to in-person screenings in the fall, though that’s subject to change. “We just started working on a plan for a possible fall program that we could implement pretty affordably,” says Lyon, “meaning probably prints from our own collection.” Considering how crucial the communal moviegoing experience is to the organization’s ethos, it follows that they’re being especially thoughtful and diligent in how they’ll eventually return to theaters. “It’s really important that when we go back,” says Hall, “it’s doing justice to that part of our mission.”

It’s possible and even likely that some of this will change. It’s much too soon to determine the future of moviegoing in Chicago, though there’s no doubt that the outlook is hopeful, as purveyors and audiences of film around the city anticipate watching movies on screens bigger than those we have in our homes, anything from a little-known experimental gem to the excesses of Hollywood, and again with other people—strangers in the darkness but still old friends who many of us are desperate to see again.   v