Bijou and Arclight – A Requiem for the Movie Theaters, Big and Small, that Didn’t Survive 2020

The 2020 pandemic left a devastating impact on all sectors of the culture, with a particular razor’s edge situation that nearly brought down the whole theatrical industry that has been a staple of entertainment for a century now.  Movie theaters across the world barely held out being shut for months, and in some cases for over a year, but the tide is turning and the industry is getting the chance now to finally welcome guests back in.  Whether or not audiences return to the numbers they used to is another question, but the doors are finally open again.  Or, at least some are.  The biggest chains, AMC, Real, and Cinemark have gotten all their nationwide locations back open, but the situation for the smaller theaters and chains has been very different.  For them, reopening has been more of a struggle, due to unpaid rent and broken leases that has forced contentious relationships between the theaters and their landlords.  Some can argue the case that the pandemic left them without any source of income during all this time and they can renegotiate a new lease if the property owner sees the value in having them continue to operate on their land above all other options.  But the case needs to be made by the theater that a recovery is inevitable and good for long term success in those particular locations, and this is a case that’s a lot harder to make.  We at this moment don’t know if the movie theater industry can recover quickly enough to reach those pre-pandemic levels.  It certainly won’t happen by the end of this year.  So, at this point, it’s a case of who will blink first, the theaters or the landlords.  In most cases, some smaller theaters don’t have the capital available to mount a fight for continuing to operate, and that sadly has left many of them with  no other choice than to close their doors for good.  2021, and for the next couple years, we are going to see a contraction of the movie theater industry as a whole as many of these independent theaters cease operations and fade away, and that in itself is one of the most devastating outcomes of this pandemic on our culture as a whole.

What is particularly devastating about so many smaller theaters closing like this is that it reduces the outreach of cinema as a whole.  One of the great things about independent cinema is that it brings the movies to communities that otherwise couldn’t support the movies before.  Small town America usually falls outside of the gaze of the bigger chains, who target larger communities where more movie going audiences typically live.  But, because demand is there for watching movies as a communal experience in all corners of the globe, people in these smaller communities also want that as well.  My own father, who grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast, told me that he often had to drive 20 miles or more out of town to go to the nearest theater when he was growing up, because his tiny hometown wasn’t big enough to support one.  This was also at a time when movies were run out of single screen venues that depended on hundreds of people at a time watching a movie in order to survive.  But, as the business expanded to favor multiplexes, the ability to reach out to smaller communities also changed.  Independent cinema rose to an increased level thanks to the era of blockbusters, as the big studios expanded their four walling outreach, allowing smaller exhibitors easier access to their catalog of films.  This further led to an increase in specialized cinema, which gave rise to the art houses, which heavily relied on independent exhibitors.  And with theaters converting to digital in the new millennium, it streamlined the industry even further.  Now it was possible for even a tiny one screen venue in a middle of nowhere town to have the ability to present the next Marvel or Star Wars movie on their screen.  And competition from smaller venues also put the bigger chains in a position where they had to increase their outreach as well, which made the last decade or so one of the most prolific in the history of cinema.  But, with the pandemic, that growth came to a crashing halt, and it’s one that affected the independents far more harshly than the bigger chains.

With the pandemic finally, hopefully, reaching it’s end, the movie theater chains are trying every trick they can to remind people of the value of their existence.  While it hit their finances hard, chains like AMC and Regal are likely to live on, even as a shell of their former selves.  Independents on the other hand are facing a more existential crises.  For some, many of their owners are contemplating what their future might entail, and wondering if there even is a future.  The pandemic has left many of them deep in debt, and far too many theaters are choosing bankruptcy over gambling on future financial loss.  And so, that’s why we are seeing so many headlines recently of movie theaters calling it quits for good.  In particular, this has been the case for movie theater chains that exist in that middle area.  The COVID relief bills that passed through congress in previous months had financial assistance available for the smallest of theaters; the ones that operated in small towns like the one that my Dad grew up in, although even that was too little too late for many venues.  Still, it gave these tiny theaters a chance to survive, because they fell under the small business loan obligations that were crucial to meet under the directions of the government.  If you were a larger chain, you often fell outside of those qualifications, and had to find a way on your own to secure your financial future.  While the big chains did face financial hardship they did at least have the benefit of public and private investment to keep them solvent through stock trading.  Privately own chains that don’t have the benefit of Wall Street behind their back, unfortunately were the odd ones out in this; too small to be publicly traded, too big to receive government assistance.  These are the businesses most desperately in need of a full recovery for the industry, and it’s sadly looking like most of them are not going to make it, even into next year.

One of the clearest examples of this is the recent news of Arclight Theaters closing shop for good.  Most people around the country probably are unaware of what Arclight was and were confused even more why so many people were mourning it’s loss.  For some background, Arclight was a theater chain branched off of the Pacific Theaters brand.  The California theater chain created Arclight as a prestige brand that focused on elevating the theatrical experience through top notch presentation standards as well as through high class ambience.  If you ever watched a movie at an Arclight theater, you felt like you were entering a cathedral to the art of cinema, with beautiful art deco style lobbies and pristine amenities throughout.  Even their bathrooms were exquisitely designed.  And this level of high quality even extended to the staff, all of whom were knowledgeable and well trained, and who even introduced each film personally before it started.  Arclight just became synonymous with the idea of the best that cinema can offer, and the reason why you’ve heard of it far outside it’s small reach is because it was the preferred movie destination for Hollywood itself.  The first Arclight theater opened in 2002 on the prime location of Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood, behind the pre-existing and iconic Cinerama Dome, which was incorporated into the venue itself.  Because of it’s central location, and it’s reputation for quality presentation, it became a favorite haunt of movie stars and film directors working in Hollywood.  Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Edgar Wright were all frequent patrons of the Arclight in Hollywood and were especially mournful of it’s closure.  Being a resident of Los Angeles myself, this too affected me, because I was a frequent visitor to the Arclight in Hollywood too.  I even made it a Christmas tradition to visit it so I could watch the newest releases that were only available there before the rest of the country got them weeks later.  The Arclight was a cherished institution here in Los Angeles, and a surprisingly egalitarian one, where Hollywood elites and the average joe could all enjoy the movies in the same place.  But, it was one of those businesses hit hard by the pandemic and was left with little to no options for it’s continued future.  So, in April of this year, the devastating news broke that Arclight Hollywood and all the other locations scattered across the Southland and the country at large would not be returning post pandemic.

This was devastating in many ways to patrons of Arclight, famous and non famous, but it’s one of the bigger stories that has defined a epidemic of theater closures across the country.  And one such example is a little closer to home to someone like me, because it’s an independent, art house cinema in my hometown.  Most people outside of the community of Eugene, Oregon know nothing about a little movie theater called the Bijou Arts Cinema, but to the people of Eugene, the Bijou was an important fixture in the their town.  Located a few blocks from the University of Oregon campus, the Bijou was a genuine one of a kind movie theater.  Built into what was once a Presbyterian church and later a mortuary, the Bijou began playing movies in 1981 to a decidedly alternative, artistically minded crowd.  The ambiance of the old church setting, complete with the buttressed ceiling and high, windowed walls, really reinforced a different kind of movie experience than what you would get in a multiplex.  Year later, they added a second, smaller screening room in what I presume was either an unused office space or even more morbidly, the old crematorium.  Despite not looking like your average movie theater, the Bijou served an important function in the Eugene community because it offered up movies that otherwise would not have played in the multiplexes.  While the big theaters played action movies, they played costume dramas.  Instead of Disney movies, they played anime imports.  All those movies that were too weird or too obscure to find in the big chains, the Bijou would have it, and that’s what made it so valuable.  I credit it for expanding my perception of cinematic art, because no where else would I find a place that played movies in other languages, that were made outside of the Hollywood system, that were documentaries or provocative art pieces, or any other miscellaneous form of cinema.  And sadly, the Bijou too announced, almost at the same time as Arclight did, that they were not going to reopen post-pandemic as well.  The situation for them is different in a way because their previous owners decided they wanted out of the movie theater experience and just handed the keys back over to the landlord.  The owners deciding the future of movie going is not one they see growth in is a devastating sign for independent cinemas, and one that more than anything impacts the people who have depended on the Bijou being there as a part of the community all these years.

That’s the harsh reality of the pandemic’s affect on the theater industry as a whole.  The movie theaters that made the theatrical experience especially worthwhile are sadly the ones that are not able to survive.  And in post-COVID era where streaming has staked a stronger foothold in the industry, hopes for a recovery are pretty dim.  I was especially shocked when I learned of the Bijou’s closing.  It opened in 1981, and I was born in 1982.  For me, it has always been there, and now it is gone.  Now, before I get too fatalist about movie theaters in general, I want to point out that Bijou and Arclight have at this point merely locked it’s doors with no foreseeable reopening date in sight.  The structures are still there, unchanged in all this time.  You go to Sunset and Vine and peer through the glass doors of the Arclight theater and you’ll see it’s pretty much intact exactly as we left it a year ago; just collecting dust.  The same holds true for the Bijou.  It’s just that now the fate of these venues are no longer in the hands of the people who used to run them, but rather in rather in those of the people who own the buildings they were housed in.  One thing that people have speculated with Arclight is that they are trying to use the closing as a negotiating tool in setting up new leases with the landlords that can help them remove the unpaid rent off their books and start anew.  To do that, they have to convince the landlords that their use of the space is better than say converting the venue into retail.  Movie theaters take up a lot of real estate, and it’s increasingly harder to find another kind of business to fill that hole.  Arclight is hoping to convince their landlords that they are the better investment for long-term, and the outpouring of support from Hollywood is also helping their case as well, at least for the Sunset and Vine location.  In many ways, for Arclight to make a return, it’s going to be on a venue by venue basis, and I don’t think we’ll see a full recovery.  The Arclight location in Santa Monica is already in danger because it’s landlord is already moving to evict.  For the Bijou, it all depends if there is an investor out there that has the money and willingness to fund a small town independent cinema that brings in far less money than the bigger screens do.  It’s all dependent on if people with deep pockets believe there is a future for the theatrical industry worth investing in, and that right now is unclear and risky.

But one thing that could be a devastating loss for movie theaters like the Arclight and the Bijou if they do manage to reopen is that the culture surrounding them will forever be changed.  New ownership means new management, and what defined these theaters before may not survive in this new culture.  It all depends on who ends up buying these leases and properties.  Will Arclight 2.0 have the same high quality standards of presentation that the theater used to pride itself on giving to it’s customers.  Though it’s unlikely given their own economic woes, but imagine if Arclight was bought out by a bigger chain like AMC.  The standard of presentation would follow that particular chain and most likely would feel more restrained and corporatized; far less concerned with personal touch that Arclight gave to every customer.  No more in person introductions, no more caramel corn, no more special events.  Just no frills movies, which goes against what Arclight originally stood for.  And imagine if big tech companies like Netflix and Amazon decided to invest in Arclight, and what that would end up doing to their independence.  Suffice to say, there is a lot of worry that what made Arclight special would be lost in the shuffle to get it reopened.  For the Bijou, the character that defined it was due to the fact that it was an alternative to the big chains.  But because the movie market has so dramatically shifted, the smaller movies are not enough to save it’s business, so does Bijou change it’s character and start showing blockbusters as a means for survival.  To find a new owner, the management of the Bijou needs to get investors to see the value of independent cinema, and why the quirkiness of it’s small operation needs to survive.  Sure, the Bijou doesn’t have the polish of an Arclight, but it’s DIY movie theater feel was something that people in the community found irresistible.  They loved that the staff of these theaters were jack of all trades, whose function was to sell you a ticket, serve up your snacks, and start the projector all by themselves.  It takes a special kind of dedication to the profession of cinema to pull off a workday like that, and that’s what made the Bijou so endearing to people.  The people who worked for the Bijou as well as those who were patrons to it, were both equally in love with cinema, and it’s that culture that sadly dies along with the theaters that have closed.

One hopes that those who invest in the future of movie theaters carry over that some love for the movies that existed before.  The Arclight in Hollywood is one that I imagine will indeed reopen it’s doors one day.  The Cinerama Dome is already a protected monument, and I can’t see anyone being foolish enough to convert it into an Old Navy or a Target.  The question is, will the same Arclight atmosphere return when it does reopen.  That is the question raised by fans of the beloved chain, as well as those who were patrons all the now closed theaters across the country.  Arclight and those like it raised the standard of the theater experience, and set a good example for the industry as a whole.  But with only the big chains being the ones able to come back at the moment, their less personal movie culture is following with them, and it is sadly leaving the middle guys who tried to be more bold without a clear future.  The one thing that does give me hope is that people who do care about the movie going experience are making their voices heard.  Fans of the Arclight theaters are showing their support, and there are interested parties already listening.  If those Arclight backers also insist on a return to the same standard of quality as well, there is a chance for Arclight to return back to normal even under new ownership.  It all depends on what these future leases on the properties look like. The same applies to a small place like the Bijou.  If the fanbase makes their voices heard and convince the landlords to sell to another interested party willing to preserve the space as a theater venue, then it may just well happen, but it is a risk.  The fact that the Bijou had forty years of operation to endear itself to a community helps to keep hope for it’s future alive, but in the end, it will all depend on if there is a bright future for the theater industry.  We owe it to ourselves to demand more out of our movie theaters, and given the precarious year that the industry has just had, they are more inclined to listen than ever before.  If we want more Arclights and Bijous in the world, we need to show our support, both in our social media postings and also in our patronage.  Independent cinema had more of an impact in making the movie-going experience ideal than we previously realized; one that could be key to the future of cinema because of the way it elevated the experience.  They were the ones that made going to the movies special, and worth the effort of leaving the TV behind.  For now, I am saddened by the loss of two great theaters in this world, but my hope is that they are not eternally gone.  A positive sign is that Google still lists them as temporarily closed, rather than permanently.  It shows that this is not a finite moment for these theaters, and that a glorious resurrection may hopefully be on the horizon.