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Billings' indie theaters well-positioned to show movies as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on industry
Billings' indie theaters well-positioned to show movies as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on industry

Billings' indie theaters well-positioned to show movies as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on industry

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After a major funding blow, the operators of Art House Cinema and Pub are making amendments to their timeline for expanding the small independent theater into a three screen movie house.

A $550,000 ask to the Murdock Foundation, which has funded arts and cultural projects in Billings in the past, was recently denied. “COVID-19 impacted their funding choices and decisions,” said Matt Blakeslee, executive director of Art House.

The news came in early May as Blakeslee was preparing to submit plans to the city to start construction.

Proposed layout of Art House Cinema and Pub

“In the midst of so much changing schedules and uncertainty with the film industry, we are fully committed to phase two, but the timeline has shifted,” Blakeslee said. “The fundraising market isn’t necessarily there for us.”

To date, the organization has raised $1.1 million of a $1.5 million expansion that includes adding a kitchen and two additional movie screens and purchasing the former bowling alley building at 109 N. 30th St. Without the grant bumping them to their goal, it was not feasible to move forward with the full renovation at this time, said Blakeslee.

Art House remodeling

A sign printed on the wall shows where an expansion would take place at the Art House Cinema.

However, the theater is getting a bit of a face lift, including new chairs and a new projection and sound system, which will allow the organization to show a larger variety of independent films and new releases. The full renovation is still part of the plan, but that is on hold, for now.

“It’s a weird time for us to say we are going to expand our operations from one screen to three screens,” said Blakeslee. “Not many people are going to movies right now, and there aren’t many movies for us to show.”

Let's all go to the movies

The Art House team also operates the Babcock Theatre as a movie house. In Nov. 2018, they took on the property lease of the historic opera house from the city.

Both Art House and the Babcock reopened at the end of May, as did a drive-in theater in Laurel, while the other movie theaters in town — AMC Classic Shiloh theater and the AMC Classic 10 theater at Rimrock Mall — remained closed.

In late August, AMC began to reopen its chain of more than 1,000 theaters across the nation after nearly six months closed and a close call with bankruptcy. The first films to be released in theaters since the pandemic shuttered theaters across the country included Disney's "New Mutants" and Christopher Nolan's “Tenet.”

Entertainment options in Billings have been sparse since the pandemic, and though some live music has returned, many large venues remain shuttered because of social distancing requirements, including The Pub Station and Alberta Bair Theater, and all major concerts at MetraPark, such as Cher and Toby Keith, have been postponed as well.

“The Babcock has become a really beautiful thing for us,” said Blakeslee of the building that seats 720 people, giving them ample room for social distancing. “We are definitely not breaking box office records, but have been able to sustain operations. We are not hurting in a time when there are a lot of arts and entertainment organizations that are trying to figure it out.”

Attendance is capped at 200 for movies at the Babcock, and at Art House, which typically seats 85, just 20 people are allowed in at a time.

Babcock socially distanced seating

Caution tape blocks off every other row to accommodate social distancing at the Babcock Theatre, pictured in May after the independent movie house was allowed to reopen following a statewide shelter-in-place order. The theater has more than 700 seats, but currently Art House Cinema staff — who also operate the Babcock — have limited seating to 200 guests. 

Nostalgia nights

As Hollywood sits on upcoming movie releases or sends them straight to streaming services, movie theaters that are open across the country have been showing classic films and box office successes from the past.

In Billings, the biggest hit so far this summer was “The Goonies,” said Blakeslee. “We have yet to turn anyone away, but we got to that 200 number with ‘Goonies’ and did max out the theater with what we felt was comfortable.”

Brian Oestreich, creative director for Art House, has been perusing titles and selecting films for both theaters. He focuses on independent films and smaller releases for Art House. At Babcock, summer blockbusters of the past, like "Jurassic Park," "E.T." and "Indiana Jones," have been a big draw. As well, he tries to find films not readily available via streaming services or “forgotten favorites” like the cult vampire hit, “Lost Boys,” or iconic movies like "Casablanca."

'Casablanca'

The Babcock Theatre has had a run of older movies during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the classic 1968 black-and-white film "Casablanca." Many major studios are not releasing new films at this time due to the global pandemic.

“Part of the Babcock experience is that some of these titles people remember seeing when they were first here,” Oestreich said, including “Lost Boys” and “Blue Velvet,” both 80s flicks.

Being the only theaters open for several months in the city also helped attract new customers. A recent survey of attendees indicated about one in five people were experiencing a movie at the Babcock for the first time.

“We were able to show that there is still an interest in seeing a film in the theater,” said Oestreich.

Reopening theaters across the country is dependent on state and local COVID-19 restrictions. In Montana, movie theaters could reopen as the state reached Phase 2 in mid-May.

Babcock reopens

Brian Oestreich, creative director for Art House Cinema, helps Lindsey Reibsome and her son Tristen Haney, 11, at the front counter at the Babcock Theatre in May. The Babcock opened May 22 following the statewide shelter-in-place order and has been showing older films as studios are not releasing new movies at this time.

Large entertainment complexes have been under immense pressure since the pandemic, and there’s a question if people will return once movie theaters reopen. In a statement in June, AMC wrote that “substantial doubt exists about our ability to continue as a going concern for a reasonable period of time” based on attendance, state-by-state restrictions, and the possibility of a second resurgence of the virus once again closing down theaters.

And, why leave your home when you’ve got Netflix?

Home entertainment, including mobile use and streaming services, increased 14 percent in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association’s annual report. With families staying home more to watch films and the added pressure of COVID-19, there’s also been some experimentation on platforms such as Disney Plus. The company is offering “Mulan” starting this month for an additional $30, on top of the monthly subscription fee.

Such a model could be the future of new releases, if theaters are unable to sustain operations during the pandemic.

"We will wait and see what that does for them," said Oestreich. "You can see ups and downs. A single person or a couple, that might be too much, but for a family of five, that could be a pretty good deal."

Operating under the umbrella of a single nonprofit organization, both independent theaters in Billings have ticket prices about  $2 - $5 cheaper than major chains, and concessions are nearly half the price, said Blakeslee. He’s a proponent of the theater experience, and the Babcock is an ideal venue to keep movie-goers invested in a night away from the streaming service.

“So much of the work of Babcock is not just showing movies, but exposing our city to this incredible theater that has always been here and that they may have not experienced,” said Blakeslee. “Watching ‘Goonies’ in a place like the Babcock Theatre, it becomes this pretty magical thing.”

'Jurassic Park'

During the COVID-19 pandemic, older movies are making a comeback, given new releases are not hitting the box office anytime soon. One of the most attended movies during the pandemic at the Babcock Theatre was Jurassic Park, second only to "The Goonies," both which screened for a week in Billings this summer.

Originally built as an opulent grand opera house, the Babcock has been through several incarnations in its lifetime, survived major fire, and even was spared some city officials' desire to turn it into a parking lot.

In total, the Babcock Theatre has seen four renovations, the latest being a 1955 update to “Skouras” style of theater design, featuring sweeping and pillowed plaster elements and scroll work in red, blue, and gold throughout, named for its creator, Charles Skouras, a motion‐picture executive and brother of 20th Century‐Fox's Spyros P. Skouras.

Babcock Theatre

A crowd fills the Babcock Theatre on the first night under Art House Cinema and Pub management in November 2018.

This style is remarkably preserved and remains one of the only examples outside of California, where the Skouras brothers primarily worked.

“We believe the film industry isn’t necessarily going anywhere, and we are committed to this work in Billings,” said Blakeslee.

The organization operates a small staff of nine, which includes two unpaid volunteers and two part-time staff. No layoffs have occurred during the pandemic, and a PPP loan funded staffing at the two theaters during the shutdown.

Blakeslee said they have been able to maintain social distancing in both locations and follow guidelines from the CDC and RiverStone Health, including requiring masks while not seated.

“We get to continually look at what is happening in Billings and how we best serve the community. It’s a picture of why what we are doing at Art House matters to have locally based cinema.”

With just one movie on Wednesdays through Sundays and only 20 people allowed in Art House at a time, is it really worth it to show a movie? “Having Art House open is more of a service to the community as opposed to an operational benefit,” Blakeslee said. “Art House on its own would not be able to sustain that right now.”

Art House remodeling

Pictured on Monday, the Art House Cinema's wooden seating has been removed to make way for new cushy seating. The remodel is part of a $1.5 million project that will eventually expand operations to three movies screens. 

To move along renovations at Art House while not committing to the entire project, in mid-August the theater was closed for remodel of its front screening room. New cushy seats were added, replacing the antique wooden theater seats, as well as adding a new projection and sound system.

Art House remodeling

Jake MacKenzie and Nicole Schreiner are among Art House Cinema employees unpacking new seating as the theater undergoes renovation.

Art House remodeling

The Art House Cinema and Pub is undergoing renovation.

The theater will reopen on Sept. 4 to members and to the general public on Sept. 11.

“It’s a great time for us to be closed,” said Blakeslee. “We hope that this is a point of joy and celebration for arts and culture in Billings. Art House is here to stay. In the midst of so much uncertainty, to be able to celebrate our community, that is the biggest message we want to share.”

Art House Cinema and Pub rendering

A rendering of Art House Cinema and Pub shows the planned exterior updates to the independent theater. The total price tag is expected at $1.5 million to expand the theater to three screens, renovate the lobby, and add a kitchen. Construction was to begin this fall, but with funding setbacks and the increased likelihood that COVID-19 will continue to stymie the industry, the organization is moving its renovation timeline. 


Photos: Babcock theater reopens after COVID-19 shutdown

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