Independent movie theaters are back but cautious

Independent movie theaters are back but cautious

It was, in a way, like coming home again. That’s how I felt on the recent afternoon I spent watching the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” at the Crest Cinema.

It was the first time I had gone out to see a movie since the pandemic began. The snack bar staff seemed almost giddy to take my ticket and serve me the kind of warm, buttery, overpriced popcorn you get only at a movie house. The seats were cushy. The screen seemed massive. Even the previews delighted me. And when the film began running through the Queen of Soul’s repertoire, the sound system — and the buzz of joy in the two-thirds-full theater — was something I could never replicate at home.

Since early 2021, with COVID-19 precautions observed, Seattleites have been able to visit chain cineplexes for a communal experience of viewing the latest Marvel action extravaganzas and other Hollywood releases on a giant screen. But for the true cinephile willing to brave mingling with strangers in an indoor setting for a couple hours, despite the pandemic surges, something essential to our local movie landscape has been missing–the array of art house options, those non-commercial cinemas specializing in experimental, foreign, local, documentary, or curated classic fare, including a bevy of niche and cultural film festivals.

These venues — more invested in art and community than big business — tend to be not for profit, with smaller staffs and fewer resources than the commercial movie chains. That has meant a longer road when it comes to transitioning back to in-person screenings. But they are starting to reopen their doors to the flick fans who have sorely missed them. Spaces in Seattle range from the intimate, two-screen Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill and the cozy-quirky Grand Illusion in the University District, to single-screen neighborhood faves like The Beacon in Columbia City and Central Cinema in the Central District, and the historic Egyptian Theatre, the largest venue in SIFF Cinema’s mini-indie-empire.

In Pierce County, fans of such moviegoing fare can get their fix again at Grand Cinema in Tacoma. It’s been the home of independent, international, and local feature-length and short films and the Tacoma Film Festival since its start in 1995 as a private business (it was called Grand Tacoma Theater then) and its rechristening in 1997 as a non-profit, largely volunteer-run organization.

Since reopening to audiences during the pandemic, the theater has required patrons to wear masks and, effective Sept. 3, to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. For further COVID safety, all seating in the intimate settings is reserved. Seats next to, in front of and behind a ticket buyer and their group are blocked off once a seat is reserved. Online ticket purchases are recommended. In addition, seating per auditorium is limited to 50 to 60 people until 100 percent capacity is restored.

Grand Cinema officials expressed gratitude for the patience, “understanding” and support of its customers.

On Sept. 30, the Egyptian in Seattle resumed screenings with DocFest, a 13-film documentary festival. And on Oct. 1, the SIFF Cinema Film Center, nestled in Seattle Center, also began welcoming patrons. (SIFF’s two-plex facility in the Uptown neighborhood is undergoing some physical upgrades and is expected to reopen a bit later.)

“People still want that feeling of being in a theater, that good sound system, that broad and expansive cinematography,” said Beth Barrett, artistic director of SIFF Cinema’s three-theater operation.

SIFF has been selling only 50 percent of potential tickets — for the Egyptian that’s half of its 520 seats, and for the more compact SIFF Film Center, half of its 90 seats. And “we’re requiring vaccination cards, presented either digitally or in person,” Barrett noted. “We don’t expect people to be back in droves right away, but we want the moviegoing experience to be as safe as possible for our staff and audiences.”

The Grand Illusion, billed as Seattle’s oldest continuously running movie theater and completely staffed by volunteers, was preparing in late September for the return of patrons in its jewel box space. In December, in a hopeful sign of normality during the winter holidays, it’s planning its annual presentation of the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” on 35 millimeter.

The Grand Illusion is mandating either proof of vaccination or proof of a COVID test within 48 hours of showtime. Its reduced-seating policy cuts capacity to just 35 patrons, making screenings seem almost private.

In-person film festivals have returned. In October, they included the Tacoma Film Festival. The Northwest Film Forum is project jazz films until Nov. 7 as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival, and SIFF will be a host of the Romanian Film Festival Nov. 12-21. The Seattle International Film Festival, entirely online in 2021, is projected to return to theaters in the spring of 2022 with about 90 films — less than half the usual 200-plus.

Theaters are proceeding with the kind of caution that every responsible arts purveyor exercises, given the vagaries of the highly transmissible delta variant and the specter of other COVID permutations on the horizon. And because pandemic shifts and COVID requirements can change with little warning, it’s a good idea to check with the venue before heading out.

Though the pandemic and accompanying economic stresses and uncertainties have made this a challenging time for independent cinema outlets, there have been bright spots in the long hiatus from public screenings. For instance, thanks to relief funding and other financial support, SIFF Cinema and other organizations have used the downtime to upgrade facilities. And some have banded together to share resources and foster more collaboration.

Ironically, the pandemic has also given indie venues new access to the mainstream movie pipeline.

“All those big Hollywood films that were supposed to come out in 2020? Most of them never did,” Barrett said. She pointed out that commercial cineplexes will be eager over the next year to catch up with the backlog of delayed, mega-budget action releases (“The Matrix: Four,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die”). That will give independent cinemas opportunities to nab the first runs of critically touted but less flashy, or more offbeat, studio fare.

As for competing with big new releases showing up on major streaming sites like Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video, local venue operators aren’t too worried about competition with the in-person experiences they can provide.

“I think we’re going to get some great films this year and in 2022,” said Barrett. “The majority of the films we’ll show aren’t streaming currently, so there’s that great possibility of discovering something here you wouldn’t otherwise see. We’ll show movies you won’t find in a Netflix block.”


Grand Cinema, a non-profit independent movie theater in Tacoma, has been limiting seating capacity and selling only reserved-seating tickets as a safety measure during the pandemic.