Post-COVID recovery continues for NJ’s independent movie theaters
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic closed movie theaters around the world, including a handful of independently owned and operated art houses in New Jersey not affiliated with major chains.
As shutdowns stretched from weeks into months, the health crisis was thought to be a death knell for historic theaters, like Atlantic Cinemas in Atlantic Highlands, as well as trendy modern ones, such as the Showroom Cinema in Asbury Park.
But nearly two years later, that's not the case, as both of those have reopened under new ownership. So has the Clairidge in Montclair, which was taken over by the team behind the annual Montclair Film Festival.
No one wants to see their local theater close, according to Tom Hall, artistic director and co-head of Montclair Film and the Clairidge, but it's difficult for these small businesses to survive when their industry is still only operating at what Hall said is about 40% of its 2019 levels.
In that kind of climate, if indie theaters do have an advantage over the chains, Hall said, it's that they aren't under corporate pressure.
They want to be successful and profitable, even if they are technically nonprofits like the Clairidge is, but each is on its own timeline.
"We planned for that, to have a sort of slow buildup back to, we hope, prior numbers, but there's no guarantee that that's going to happen," Hall said.
'Older and a little more cautious'
What helps too, according to Hall, is that the independent houses may have built or are building a consistent customer base, who may be more willing to provide feedback on how a specific theater can continue to evolve along with the times as opposed to a chain.
For instance, at the Clairidge, following the lead of Broadway shows, both mask-wearing and COVID vaccination proof are continuing as conditions for entry for now.
"Our audiences tend to be older and a little more cautious in terms of returning to movie theaters, so we want to make sure that it's safe and healthy for them," Hall said.
His theater also offers a membership program through which participants can get discounts on tickets and concessions, which are incentives to keep people coming back for more.
'Showing things ... just to see if people will turn up in person. Turns out they do'
Collectively, theaters such as these know the niche they fill, according to Hall. They aren't where patrons go to see "Spider-Man: No Way Home."
But what they can offer, he said, is "something that you can't get at home" — even if you can.
"Whether that be a Q&A with a filmmaker, a conversation, and creating programs where the community can actually invest in the theater," Hall said. "We're learning as we go, we're taking chances, we're showing things that are available on streaming sometimes, just to see if people will turn up in person. Turns out they do."