By Ethan Gordon
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The weekend before it closed down for months, Pittsburgh’s The Manor Theater seemed slightly off. While the regular patrons came out to see the newest version of Jane Austin’s Emma and the controversial thriller, The Hunt, the theater saw a meager turnout on Friday and Saturday. With anxiety about COVID-19 quickly spreading around the country, the 98-year old venue stayed open until Sunday and closed the next day.
Months later, the Squirrel Hill landmark is cautiously moving towards reopening. In its first Facebook post in months, the theater said, “We’ve missed you and look forward to welcoming you back to The Manor Theatre in July,” before explaining recent renovations that it has taken to protect against the spread of Coronavirus. The Manor’s changes show that the theater is willing to put customers’ safety ahead of profits, and luckily, it appears other small theaters in the area are following suit.
“We obviously take the health and safety of our employees and patrons seriously. Squirrel Hill tends to have a bit of an older clientele, especially when colleges and universities aren’t in session, so we took the time during the shutdown to do some improvements to the theater and to make sure everyone is comfortable,” said The Manor’s owner, Rick Stern.
In addition to new hand-sanitizing stations, touchless faucets, and other upgrades, the theater has revamped its ticketing system. “You’ll now see an illustration of the auditorium and then you’ll be able to buy a ticket for a particular seat. It’ll hopefully give people a bit more comfort that they can select their seat, see how many people are sitting around them, and give everyone a bit more control over the [theater’s] environment,” said Stern.
After months of listening to government officials on the matter, Stern raised a note of caution about reopening in July. Some Pittsburgh area cinemas are going to be open within the next two weeks, but The Manor is going to wait it out even further.
“With the recent push back of big movies like Tenet and Mulan, and with watching the cases increase in Allegheny County, we’ll probably push [the opening] back to the end of July,” said Stern. “When people come back, we want it to be fun, and we want people to not have to worry about it too much, so I think being cautious is prudent.”
After a global closure, any movie-related industry is flailing. In the United States, everything fell apart in early March when the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, moved its release date from April to November. From that point onward, films dropped off the release schedule like flies. From March 1st to March 12th, Forbes Magazine reported that the stocks of national chains Cinemark and AMC fell by over 35%. Articles from The Guardian and other publications in early March noted a possible $5 billion loss globally for the movie industry. Now that parts of the United States are reopening, movie chains are scrambling to follow suit.
For a month or so, it appeared that the nation’s major cineplexes were charging into an early July opening. It now seems that the news of rising cases in 36 states has scared them off. AMC has switched the opening of its theaters from July 15th to July 30th, while also implementing a set of “Safe and Clean” policies to protect customers. The chain’s locations in the Waterfront, South Hills, and Mt. Lebanon seemingly will start a business on that new date.
Following AMC’s lead, Cinemark announced that they will be pushing back openings to July 24th. As of now, there’s no news about which of the North Hills, Robinson, Monroeville, or Center Township locations will be starting up first, even though the North Hills and Robinson venues were supposed to be open on July 3rd. Despite the changing dates, the biggest change with Cinemark is the closure of the Pittsburgh Mills Mall multiplex, which announced in May that its COVID shutdown would be a permanent shutdown.
While it appears that coronavirus was the final nail in the coffin for the Mills Mall Cineplex, another well-known theater in the region announced its closure just days before lockdown. The SouthSide Works Theater struck a middle ground between the area’s giant chain theaters and The Manor’s comfortable size, but the cinema seemingly got caught in no man’s land. On March 9th, the SouthSide Works Theater’s new owners announced that it would close, partially due to slipping attendance.
With a three month lockdown almost permanently killing AMC, the nation’s largest theater chain, it’s clear there’s an inherent frailty in the industry in 2020. This weakness has led some film fans to discuss a larger role for video-on-demand in the future of moviegoing, which many in the movie industry have pushed against by emphasizing the importance of the in-person experience. While most people involved with theaters agree with the latter sentiment, some small cinemas in the area have opened up their own video on-demand streaming service to stay relevant during the shutdown.
Downtown’s historic Harris Theater is one of a handful of Pittsburgh cinemas that has added a VOD platform. The art-house cinema has been keeping up with independent films and documentaries with its virtual theater, but it hasn’t yet announced anything about reopening. That silence could be worrying, considering the Harris’ tumultuous 2019, where the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust took over from the Harris’ previous management, Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
Lawrenceville’s Row House Cinema is in a unique spot, as it’s a theater that focuses on repertory screenings of older films to provide an exciting night out. For a theater that is focused on people who love movies and love seeing them, the pandemic was difficult. While it doesn’t compare to the real thing, owner Brian Mendelssohn launched Row House Online, a virtual cinema carrying all types of indie films.
“We’ve always been an alternative to the movie home experience, so it’s sad losing that. Still, we’re doing our best to adapt and evolve in this time. We’ve jumped into virtual cinema distribution, but that isn’t really our mission as a movie theater… even if it’s the best we can do for now,” said Mendelssohn.
Due to the Row House’s emphasis on creating a great night out and building a connection with Pittsburgh’s film-lovers, reopening isn’t on the table just yet.
“We don’t want to do it in a way where we play one movie per day and with ten people at a time, and wipe down the seats each time, and we’re going to have to wear a mask the entire time. It seems counterproductive and not close to the filmgoing experience people love. We don’t want to do the ‘social-distancing cinema’ that is emerging as the new normal. We totally understand the importance of our responsibility to our staff and to the people, so we’re just not going to open until we feel that we can open in a way where we’re able to create that community, and until we’re able to make it feel like Row House again,” said Mendelssohn.
As Mendelssohn said, the VOD theater is a neat idea in theory, but it didn’t always work in practice. Take The Parkway Theater in McKees Rocks, an unorthodox space that has a spot for live music, a taproom, and a 45-seat screen for indie flicks. To help maintain a connection with its patrons, the Parkway tried out the virtual cinema, but it didn’t take off.
“[The virtual cinema] was a cool concept for different distributors to help us out, to split [the profits] 50/50 with us, but you’re also competing with other on-demand movies. While we had some really cool films online, I’ll be glad to get people back in the building,” said co-owner Aaron Stubna.
The Parkway’s bar has been open since Allegheny County moved into the Green phase, but the opening of the screening room is to follow in mid-July. With the theater’s opening comes an additional set of precautions:
“As far as the theater goes, we’re putting caution tape where you can’t sit; we have 15 of our 45 seats there open for seating. After, you got your proper fabric disinfectants to clean up when people leave, and we go in and wipe everything down. We’re just following what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not always convenient, but hey, we just try to enforce those rules,” said Stubna.
When later asked about the increasing COVID cases in Allegheny County, Stubna told us that they are closing the bar portion of the Parkway in accordance with new Allegheny County rules, adding that it’s frustrating the county is “shutting [it] down across the board with alcohol.” The Parkway still plans to reopen their theater on July 10th with the new documentary, Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things.
With the recent increases in Allegheny County’s daily cases of COVID-19, the possibility of another closure looms on many theater owner’s minds. A lot of the opening dates shared in this article had already changed, and many cinema managers are prepared for them to change again. Like everything else in the time of coronavirus, the only thing theaters can do is try and adapt or wait it out.