Despite dark days, The Brattle is well positioned to open for ‘new normal,’ theater managers say
A four-phase strategy for reopening Massachusetts businesses and public facilities was announced this week by Gov. Charlie Baker. The plan was vague on details and dates leading up to a final “new normal,” which is something like where we were before Covid-19 turned Boston into a hot zone, though Phase I presumably kicks off May 18. Just what that means and for whom seems to be a bit of a moving target. Among those with questions is the “gathering industry,” as Ivy Moylan, executive director of The Brattle Theatre, explained was how the Harvard Square repertory institution and other arts venues were tagging themselves since the coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re hoping to heal and rebound and bring back the joy,” Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle said, “but not be too quick about it. The goal is to open as quickly as possible when it’s safe to do so.” The Brattle ran a survey of its members recently to gauge what “safe” means.
A smattering of drive-ins have opened around the country, and Universal released “Trolls World Tour” digitally (making more than $100 million in three weeks of digital release, something Hinkle says likely happened due to lack of competition) while art houses such as The Brattle and Somerville Theatre have been running Virtual Screening Room selections – smaller releases such as “Deerskin” and arthouse and foreign language classics with a portion of rental fees benefiting the theater you rent from.
“As a small business, we’re pretty agile,” Moylan said. “We could come back pretty quickly.” When shuttering March 14, The Brattle did not have to furlough its employees. “Most are part time,” Moylan said, “but when we shut down, they were our first priority. We want to protect them.” Moylan said at first the shutdown was terrifying, but as things went on managers realized going offline for a while and coming back was doable. “A couple of months,” she said. “A year would be hard.” The nonprofit theater has taken in a good sum through donations and has received Payroll Protection Program funding for its employees.
There’s also the dollars rolling in from the Virtual Screening Room. “It’s great,” Hinkle said, “but a good chunk of what we and theaters make is from concessions.” The Brattle during this time has also engaged filmgoers through virtual programing (movie lists, such as our Film Ahead section has morphed into), a podcast and Friday movie nights co-sponsored with the city.
Aside from slow openings, there’s another problem that will face mainstream theaters relying on the studio system for films, Hinkle said: a dearth of product. The latest James Bond (“No Time to Die”), the next two “Mission: Impossible” chapters, “A Quiet Place Part II” and the next “Wonder Woman” installment have all had their release dates pushed by months. The Brattle, on the other hand, which plays smaller releases and repertory fare, isn’t so reliant.
“We want to bring a rich experience back to our valued patrons,” Hinkle said, “people are hungry for that type of communal experience.” The looming question remains when.