Big screens are filling seats while they await federal COVID relief.

As the fear of COVID-19 infection continues to wane, independent theaters across the area are welcoming back movie buffs while awaiting news of their applications for federal COVID relief. Five local theaters are back in business, but most of them continue to struggle financially as funding through the federal Save Our Stages Act remains mired in governmental bureaucracy.

Of the five, only Trylon Cinema in South Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood has received a Save Our Stages grant as of press time. Other theaters that have applied for the grants include the Riverview and Parkway theaters in South Minneapolis and Mann Theatres, which operates the Grandview and Highland theaters in Saint Paul.

Highland Theatre
A couple conversed while awaiting the start of the feature film on the big screen at the Highland Theatre last week. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The Save Our Stages Act was a bipartisan effort initiated by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). It passed Congress last December as part of a larger COVID relief package. The act allocated $16 billion for live and movie theaters, live music stages and other entertainment venues. The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) administers the grants, which are intended to help pay for about six months of employee salaries, entertainers and other operating expenses.

The federal grant has made up for about a half-year of lost income at the Trylon, according to its director, Barry Kryshka. The nonprofit 90-seat theater specializes in classic films from long ago. To save money, it is bringing in fewer films this summer but for longer runs. Some of the classics it has scheduled for August are Key Largo, The Miami Story, Night Moves and Body Heat. However, Kryshka expects to book a full run of 50 films in the fall.

 “We’re relying on getting the federal grant. How long we can hang on is hard to say. But we’ll be back full time in September, fingers crossed,” with both live shows and classic movies.

— Ward Johnson
Parkway Theater

The Riverview Theater, which has been in operation since 1948, recently switched from showing second-run to first-run movies and increased ticket prices for what it believes will be a more sustainable business model. The theater is still adhering to social distancing guidelines by selling reserved seats online, and patrons are being asked to wear masks when they are not in their seats.

 

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Ward Johnson, co-owner of the 90-year-old Parkway Theater, expects to be back to full-time business starting in September. While hoping for a Save Our Stages grant to come through, he has been operating with the help of an SBA loan he received last November, private donations, savings and personal finances. However, most of those funds have been spent.

“We’re relying on getting that grant,” Johnson said. “How long we can hang on is hard to say. But we’ll be back full time in September, fingers crossed,” with both live shows and classic movies.

This summer the Parkway has scheduled a couple of live concerts and a 24-hour horror movie marathon. A Johnny O’Neil “Truth or Dare” album release concert will take place on July 30, and guitarist Tommy Emmanuel will perform in concert on August 13.

Five live shows are scheduled at the Parkway in September. Ward hopes to open the fall movie season with Jaws, which was the first movie the Parkway screened after Ward and his business partner took over the theater in 2018.

Movie theaters were already suffering from reduced attendance even before COVID-19 darkened the big screens last year. However, with the government-mandated shutdowns of 2020, more and more movie buffs turned to the small screens and such video services as Netflix, Hulu and HBO.

Highland Theatre
With help from Reagan Welch (right), Andrea Borries picked up some refreshments before seeing a movie last week at the Highland 1 & 2 Theatres. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Now, theater owners are hoping that Hollywood returns to its former practice of releasing movies on the big screen first.

The Highland Theatre reopened in January and the Grandview Theatre about six weeks ago, according to Michelle Mann, co-owner of the Mann Theatres chain. “Hollywood knows people want to come to the theater,” Mann said. “You can’t duplicate that experience at home.”

The hit musical In the Heights, produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, drew a good crowd to the Grandview on a recent Saturday night. The theater was about half full.

Although the Mann family received some financial assistance from the state during COVID, getting a federal Save Our Stages grant “would be a big help,” Mann said. The family-owned chain has not raised ticket prices, and it claims to have the lowest prices of any theater chain in the Twin Cities.

“Community support (during the pandemic) has been amazing,” Mann said.

In an attempt to speed up the granting of Save Our Stages funds, Senators Klobuchar and Cornyn recently gathered the signatures of more than 50 U.S. senators on a strongly worded letter to the SBA, urging the agency to expedite the process.

“Bureaucratic process cannot stand in the way of getting these desperately needed funds out the door,” the letter stated.

—Carolyn Walkup

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