Experiencing Bong Joon Ho's Memories of Murder in a practically empty theater, you're liable to peek over your shoulder into the dark once or twice, startled by its dynamic sound design. The 2003 true crime manhunt for a South Korean serial killer is as gripping as Bong's Oscar-winning Parasite, enhanced dramatically by the theatrical experience and one of a few new releases available in Portland this fall.
But it's the "empty theater" part that's key. In a year defined by exhibitors waiting endlessly to safely open, at least two Portland theaters—Cinema 21 and Living Room—have gained momentum through private rentals. Now, in light of Gov. Kate Brown's "freeze" on businesses like theaters, bars and restaurants, they'll have to wait at least four weeks to rent their screens again.
"I'm holding out hope we can just get back to it," says Cinema 21 manager Erik McClanahan. "It's been going about as smooth as possible: Every [rental] group has been super respectful, small in size, none of the worry of dealing with people who don't care."
Cinema 21 and Living Room Theaters opened for private rentals, making them some of the only venues in town showing new releases until the new COVID order.
"I've missed [theaters] so much," says Living Room owner Steve Herring. "You get people to experience it again, and it's like, 'Ah yes, this is what it's like to be off the couch.'"
Throughout the summer and fall, Portland-area theaters were classified as venues by the state and therefore not permitted to sell tickets until Phase 2. But Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties never met Phase 2 criteria.
After petitioning the governor in August to be cleared for reopening alongside restaurants, theaters like Cinema 21 and Living Room could book their auditoriums privately to distanced and masked groups no larger than 25. This approach circumvented ticketing, which proved sticky to define with both regulators and film studios refusing to open certain titles in Phase 1 counties.
As for the four-week stoppage, McClanahan is dispirited but understanding given Oregon's record-breaking COVID-19 numbers: "I think our governor has a very tough job that I sure as hell wouldn't want. I get the sense we're operating under science and the best practices we have."
As of October, though, studios like Focus Features, Neon and even Netflix warmed to distributing new films for private rental. Both locations are offering Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor, Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy, and Ammonite, starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet, along with The Climb and more. Then, McClanahan touts the Memories of Murder re-release and Mank (David Fincher's Netflix film, arriving at Cinema 21 in December) as two standout offerings. Once restrictions are lifted, patrons can also book either theater to play Blu-rays or older movies of their choice.
Currently, Cinema 21's 500-seat main room is the biggest auditorium in the city at a $250 price point ($100 of which goes to a concessions credit). The Nob Hill theater's evening slots are booked through 2020. McClanahan says the price will go up to $300 in January.
Living Room bookings are also priced at $250 (same $100 concession credit), but the cinema is additionally launching a new website to allow "last-minute bookings." In such cases, as few as two customers could book a theater the same day for $30 apiece with a $10 food credit on each purchase.
Financially speaking, call the rentals a life raft, stopgap, on-ramp, whatever—they're the surest survival method of the past eight months. Herring says private bookings have increased 50% each month at the Living Room, though he hopes to see those numbers double and triple for the Portland location to truly break even.
In other parts of town, the Hollywood Theatre continues its private screening offerings, even making 35 and 70 mm prints available at prices between $450 and $950. Representatives of Laurelhurst, Cinemagic and the Academy say private rentals are a future possibility with nothing definite planned, and Clinton Street Theater co-owner Lani Jo Leigh continues to offer "super-private" rentals for groups eight or fewer for bookings like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
As 2020 winds down, optimism in the exhibition world is incredibly relative. Herring can confidently say 2021 "looks a lot better." McClanahan remains heartened that so long as independent theaters maintain loyal followings, they'll outlive the pandemic and likely some wounded multiplexes, too.
"I think if we can just hang in there, we can afford to be lean," he says, "I'm convinced people still do want to go to the movies. It's obvious."