December 23, 2021

Chicago’s Independent Theaters Adapting During COVID-19

By Sam Rodrigues and Saniya Bangash

In the past year, movie theaters have taken massive hits due to COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions, and fears. While large chains such as AMC have been in the spotlight in terms of their solutions to these problems, smaller indie theaters have silently been finding their own ways to survive in changing times as well.

Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, a movie palace first established in 1929 on Southport Avenue in Lakeview, is one of the many local theaters that had to utilize various different strategies to keep their business afloat.

The Music Box Theatre, located at 3733 N Southport Ave. (Photo by Sam Rodrigues)

The Music Box Theatre, located at 3733 N Southport Ave. (Photo by Sam Rodrigues)

Manager Ryan Oestreich knew changes would have to be made quickly. Not only to maintain the safety of their customers and staff, but also to assure patrons that the Music Box was a safe place to visit.

“We reduced capacities,” Oestreich said, “we like, told people they had to use their sick time, you cannot come in if you’re sick, we give you sick time for this reason, you know, we were doing extra cleaning and all this sort of stuff so that we would basically know people are a little like, unsure what’s happening, but they would see us as somebody who was kind of ahead of the curve and knowing it’s something we need to take seriously.”

Despite changes made at the beginning of the pandemic, such as limits on the number of people allowed in each theater and required masks, the theater had to close with all the others in the area when the first lockdown was declaredon March 21, 2020.

During this time the theater relied on its community of local cinephiles to keep going.

“So the strategies that we implemented to get through the pandemic were— how do we give people a taste of Music Box even if they can’t come inside?” Oestreich said.“To-go orders, that was a big thing, right? Different packages of popcorn, soda, beer, whatnot, wine, the taste, the feel, the coming by, the drive up sort of delivery to your car to-go order, that was the sense to it.”

TheMusic Box also hosted garage sales, giveaways, online streaming and outdoor screenings to keep up funding for their establishment. But besides money, keeping their sense of community strong was most important.

Oestreich said, “We even did this thing, it had no financial gain, zero. But it was like, hit us up on our socials, DM us, say you’re looking for a certain type of film, and all of our programming hive will come together and give you three recommendations. You can literally say 1980s Nick Cage, or, you know, like, give me a stylized murder mystery, we will come at you and we will give you three options and where you can find that. You know, like, just like that level of we want to engage. We want you to think of us.”

Other art cinemas in Chicago have had very similar struggles to those described by Oestreich. One example would be Facets Multi-Media, a non-profit cinema center founded by Milos Stehlik in 1975 and located at 1517 W. Fullerton Ave.

Facets, located at 1517 W Fullerton Ave. (Photo by Sam Rodrigues)

Facets, located at 1517 W Fullerton Ave. (Photo by Sam Rodrigues)

Facets had to shut their doors along with everyone else in March of 2020, but several aspects of the organization made their ability to adapt during lockdown somewhat unique. Director of Operations Matt Silcock brings up that being a non-profit may have put them in a somewhat better position during lockdown than some of the city’s other cinemas.

“As a nonprofit, we do have a fundraising component, and a donor base, and we have a lot of grant support, and that sort of thing,” Silcock said. “And we were able to still get that during being shut down. We are not completely dependent on ticket sales, and on foot traffic and on being open, food and beverage sales, things like that.”

This isn’t to say that things were easy for Facets. The organization has had to work hard to maintain relevance during a time when it is more difficult than ever to get people into theaters.

“Cinema attendance was declining already,” Silcock said. “ It’s kind of been a multi-year trend. Then after being shut down a year and a half, it’s hard to even get back to that level it was right away.”

To help bring audiences back, Facets is getting back into the swing of things with a busy December schedule. This schedule includes their Holiday Detour series, which is made up of non-traditional movies that take place around the holidays such as “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) and “Tangerine” (2015). They will also be having a pop-up market on December 11th where they will be selling DVDs and VHS, as well as hosting other vendors who will be selling art and fanzines.

Each cinema has had to make a difficult decision in choosing the right time to reopen their doors. Facets reopened in September of 2021, which put them at over 17 months of closure. The Music Box, on the other hand, would be the first indie theater to reopen to the public in Chicago in July of 2020.

“There were people ready to come back.” Oestreich said. “Because the reality was, we were only allowed 50 People in the main theater, 18 People in the small house, six foot, probably more social distancing than six feet, in those houses. We were very anal, crazy about our communications about how to make sure that people kept their masks on, kept distances, followed everything. And we still to this day have never had a COVID transmission that has been documented in our theatres.”

When asked about fears he had for the future of the Music Box Theatre, Oestreich brought up the repairs that the 92-year-old building would need as time went on, and the costs that would come with that. He also mentioned the decreased number of visitors that they’ve experienced since the rise of the delta variant.

Oestreich said, “You know, the hope is that over time, people remember and realize what was special about the Music Box and take the time to come out. Because if you look at the 222,000 people that came in 2019, we have not seen them back, we still haven’t. I don’t think we’re gonna see them back until sometime in 2022.”

As seen with things like the Music Box’s movie recommendation program and Facets’ pop-up market, community is key for these cinemas. Oestreich strongly expressed his faith in the local indie film community, showing his optimism for the future of the Music Box and Chicago’s overall cinema culture.

“Some things just need to be viewed together.” Oestreich said. “Right? We’re a communal society. And no matter what virus or thing gets in our way, we still have a desire to come together, right? And that’s never gonna go away.”

Read More

If you are interested in supporting these and other independent and art-house cinemas in Chicago, please check out these websites:

Interview with Reporters Saniya Bangash and Sam Rodrigues

Interview with Red Line Project reporters Sam Rodriguez and Saniya Bangash on how Chicago’s Indie Theatres Survived the Pandemic. Host: Sarita Cavazos

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