As the movie industry puzzles out how and when to reopen amid the pandemic, one Sandy Springs theater is inching toward a return this weekend with private auditorium rentals — and in the future, maybe turning its parking lot into a drive-in.
Brandt Gully, owner of The Springs Cinema & Taphouse, closed his independent theater in Roswell Road’s Parkside shopping center in March before the shutdown orders. And he’s kept it closed for safety and business concerns despite being legally allowed to return since April 27.
“I am warming up to the idea of opening-opening in this new world of restrictions and so forth,” Gully said in a phone interview. “We still don’t think it’s time for that.”
So, starting May 9, The Springs is experimenting with a return of its private theater rentals in a limited-attendance form — suggested at 25 or fewer attendees in auditoriums that seat around 150. “Just for you & your quarantine crew,” says The Springs’ promotional pitch.
Gully says it’s a way “to ease back into it in a more controlled manner and also see if there’s an appetite for us to be open to do anything.” No that there’s much question about the demand; he says the theater got at least 100 inquiries this week in the first 12 hours after promoting the private rentals in marketing emails.
The Springs will attempt several COVID-19 safety and social distancing precautions. Facilities will be cleaned regularly and all employees will wear masks. Even if there is demand, the theater will not rent out all the auditoriums at once. Rental times will be staggered and when more than one rental is happening within the theater, “it would be super-controlled,” said Gully. As an example, he said if there are two rentals, they would be held in auditoriums on opposite sides of the building, with its patrons using the separate restrooms in their parts of the building.
But what will theater-renters be watching? Hollywood is shut down and there are no new movies — among the many reasons The Springs has yet to reopen. Many major films have been delayed to late 2020 or even 2021. Gully said major chains are aiming for a July 1 reopening and the first major film currently scheduled for release is the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan thriller “Tenet” on July 17. The pandemic could still change all that, especially if public health conditions in New York and California do not improve.
“We have a collection of retro films available, or people can bring their own movie or stream their own movie, or even play video games,” says Gully. The auditorium also does not have to be used for Hollywood movies, he said. Some patrons expressed interest in holding graduation parties with video clips or slideshows. “Put it up on the big screen,” he said.
The per-head rental rate includes popcorn and a fountain drink, and is still being tweaked. “It’s not a big moneymaker, no matter what,” says Gully.
Meanwhile, Gully is working on an even bigger idea to safely screen movies no matter the pandemic conditions. In some ways, it’s about turning the theater inside out.
“We are working hard to try to set up a drive-in in our parking lot,” Gully said. The challenges include routing power, establishing a screen and getting sound transmitted to car radios. But, Gully said, it’s looking good and his landlord is in support. “I think we’re going to do it…. That’s likely to be pulled together pretty soon,” he said.
With the theater shut down, The Springs established a fundraiser for the nonprofit CURE Childhood Cancer that involved curbside pickup sales of beer growlers and movie popcorn. Those sales are continuing. As the reopening experiment continues, Gully said, that will fundraiser likely also will continue but shift into becoming part of the proceeds of indoor concession sales.
For more information, see springscinema.com.