When Lani Jo Leigh bought the Clinton Street Theater in 2012, she considered ending the theater’s decades-long run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie that is far from her personal cinematic tastes. (“I like foreign films that are all very intellectual and nothing really happens and people just sort of talk,” she says.)
Then Leigh realized that Rocky Horror wasn’t just a cult craze. It was also a haven for Portland’s LGBTQ community.
“I started meeting all these people—these amazing people—and heard them tell me, ‘Rocky Horror saved my life. I used to cut myself or I used to harm myself in this way. I had thoughts of suicide because I didn’t fit in. But I came here and I was fine, I was safe, I could be me,’” Leigh says. “I understood that it was a gift that the theater was giving to the LGBTQ community.”
But that was another life. The Clinton Street Theater is just one of many Portland arthouse movie theaters faced with a choice: evolve or die. As COVID-19 continues to rage throughout Oregon, theaters have been forced to abandon traditions like Rocky Horror in favor of streaming films or (if they have the space) hosting drive-in screenings.
As I began speaking to stalwarts of Portland’s arthouse cinema scene for this article, I braced for bad news. I was heartened to hear less of it then I expected. “It’s amazing—we’ve all still been really busy, even though the theater’s closed,” says Dan Halsted, the head programmer at the Hollywood Theater. “So I think that’s helped with keeping morale up. It’s not just doom and gloom.”
But not every theater is the Hollywood. Here’s what I learned about the state of some of the city’s most beloved arthouse theaters—what they have become and what they’re doing to survive long enough to see a post-COVID Portland.
Return of the drive-in.
Amy Dotson was sitting on the back of her grandfather’s 1970s blue Ford pickup truck when the tornado struck. It was 1996 and she was seeing Twister at the Cinema 69 Drive-In in Oklahoma. The arrival of an actual twister cut the screening short, but it didn’t diminish her enthusiasm for drive-in theaters—as the director of the NW Film Center, she’s overseeing the Drive-In at Zidell Yards (which is a collaboration between the Film Center and the Portland Art Museum and will be open on and off through September 27).
“We’ve sold about 800 tickets to date,” Dotson says. “We hope that that’s a good sign and people will continue to come out and enjoy some popcorn and a night under the stars.”
Drive-in theaters are often associated with blockbusters like Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg’s devilish dinos topped the box office once again in June), but the Film Center is offering edgier options as part of its Cinema Unbound series. Obvious summer fare like E.T. and Fast Times at Ridgemont High will be shown, but so will Sofia Coppola’s transcendent Tokyo odyssey Lost in Translation (two of the series’ finest offerings, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, have already sold out).
“Our litmus test was people who refuse to let their creativity be bound by convention…from people like the late Lynn Shelton to Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Dotson says (the theater is showing Sword of Trust, the final film directed by Shelton, a brilliant mumblecore auteur who died in May).
After facing controversy over a planned opening screening of Kindergarten Cop (it was replaced by the documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which has sold out), the Drive-In at Zidell Yards opens tonight—and will be observing strict social distancing protocols. Popcorn will be served to the hoods of cars and moviegoers will hear the film using a limited FM radio frequency.
“Everything is not foolproof,” Dotson says. “So we just want to make sure whether it’s the Drive-In or whether it’s other things that we’re doing that it’s safety first and then backing up from there.”
The evolution will be digitized.
If film fandom is a polytheistic religion, physical media is one of its gods. I should know—I’m one of the cine-snobs who insisted on seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix film, on the big screen in 2018. This may sound like deluded romanticism to nonbelievers, but I’ve never liked the intangibility of streaming services. A movie isn’t fully real to me until I hold either a ticket, a DVD or a Blu-Ray in my hand.
That attitude is one of the pandemic’s more trivial casualties. “I’ve been a projectionist and film programmer my entire life, so all of this has been such a huge change in gears,” Dan Halsted says. “All of a sudden, I’m thrust into streaming and everything online, and the tech side is really complicated and I’m trying to figure all that out. It’s very bizarre.”
Thanks to its inventive virtual programming, the Hollywood has become a model for pandemic-era cinematic success. By offering moviegoers online classes and original films, the theater has given its fans a reason to watch (and will have drive-in screenings of its own, which will take place at the Expo Center beginning August 13).
After closing in March, the Hollywood announced an April 18 reopening date, which executive director Doug Whyte swiftly realized was a mistake. “We put it on our marquee I think the first night, and I think already by the second day we were like, ‘Let’s get that day off the marquee,’” he says. Eventually, the theater did reopen, but only for rental screenings (Whyte says that they have been popular, but that no customer has paid the $900-$1,200 necessary for a live pipe-organ score).
The Hollywood’s classes (which are offered through its Movie Madness University program) have spotlighted everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria—and they actually expanded during the pandemic. “We were about to launch those education classes before the pandemic, and they could have had 16 people per class,” Whyte says. “Now we’re doing them online and we’ve had like 100-plus people per class.”
Other Hollywood Theatre triumphs include Gremlins: A Puppet Story (a new behind-the-scenes documentary about Joe Dante’s 1984 horror classic Gremlins), which features rare photos and videos from special-effects master Chris Walas’ personal archive. Available on the theater’s website, it’s the kind of offering that is emblematic of the institution’s impressive reinvention.
“We are in a lucky position,” Whyte says. “We’re a nonprofit organization, we have a big base of members and donors, we own our building outright, we don’t have any debts on it and we have a pretty healthy reserve.”
Not every theater has been so fortunate.
Twilight for the Clinton?
Founded in 1915, the Clinton Street Theater has endured its share of crises. “The theater’s been there for the community since it opened and it’s never stopped operating,” says Lani Jo Leigh. “Through the Spanish flu, and through World War I and World War II, it’s survived.”
Can the Clinton survive Covid-19, too? Leigh isn’t sure, but she’s fighting for the theater. She’s offering Clinton lovers films and videos to stream, popcorn to go (on Fridays and Saturdays) and theater merchandise (including facemasks and Unfit, her memoir about being forced to give up her son Bo when she was a teenager).
Leigh also needs $4,000 a month to pay the theater’s bills—and its miniscule lobby means it won’t be able to reopen until social distancing is no longer necessary. “Everywhere you look, there’s a problem,” Leigh says. “If I went down to 25 percent capacity, I could have people arranged in the auditorium itself, but it’s just getting there and getting out or getting concessions or getting to a bathroom that’s impossible.”
In other words, the Clinton is a reminder that when it comes to arthouse cinema, the NW Film Center and the Hollywood are arguably the exception, not the rule.
“It’s important to remember that these businesses are now hurt through no fault of their own,” says Phil Contrino, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners. “They were robust businesses, especially independent theaters, which are an essential part of the communities they’re in—a gathering place. They can be that again.”
How? Contrino points to the RESTART Act—which, if passed by Congress, could give movie theaters access to partially forgivable seven-year loans covering six months of expenses (NATO is promoting it using the #SaveYourCinema campaign). But people may have to act soon if they want to save theaters like the Clinton.
“I know I can’t open safely until there’s a vaccine or there’s a treatment,” Leigh says. “I kind of vacillate between being super, super sad because I’m losing something I’ve built up over eight years…and being angry at the messed-up way we are in our country and how we’ve had not little, but no leadership on this.”
Clinging to cinema.
Phil Contrino is a seasoned movie buff (the last film he saw in a theater was the Oscar-nominated obscurity Corpus Cristi)—and he was one of the most chipper people I spoke to for this article (“Independent theatres are so resourceful,” he declared). His optimism isn’t surprising—he has a personal stake in the survival of theaters.
I do, too. In 2012, I worked at the Joy Cinema and Pub (which is owned by my lifelong friend, Jeff Martin), a gig that paved the way for me to work part-time at Cinema 21—an experience that taught me that a movie theater isn’t just a place to watch movies. It can also be an arena of conversation and connection.
Which is why, even though I miss my job, I miss my colleagues more. I miss the fanboy frenzies that I share with Erik when we geek out about Christopher Nolan. I miss Riley’s mouthwatering rhapsodies about the ice cream at Mike’s Drive-In. I miss having zany political debates with Ward. I miss Agnieszka’s toughness, kindness and peerless sense of style (I’m biased because like me, she’s into berets).
There are times when I wonder if I should stop torturing myself with those memories, but clinging to them has become an act of defiance, and defiance feels right. I know that and I think Leigh knows it—she hasn’t fully closed the curtains on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My manager—I’m not paying him, he’s doing it voluntarily—every week, he still goes over and he runs that print and he plays Rocky Horror,” she told me.
You can call that a symbolic gesture, and it is. It’s a symbol of the ideals that are sustaining arthouse cinemas: resilience and hope.