Curtains down for historic movie theatre

Juan A Lozano

HOUSTON (AP) — A historic Houston theatre that director Richard Linklater called his “film school” and that for decades was the place to catch hard-to-find independent and foreign films has closed for good — like many theatres and other businesses, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

After nearly 82 years in business, the River Oaks Theatre turned off its projectors last month, depriving the nation’s fourth-largest city of an institution where everyone from rappers to suburban kids and cinephiles formed friendships, fell in love and found community. Its loss has left more than just an empty building behind.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve experienced so much loss and so much grief and loss of life. It is also a profound grief to lose the places of community and the places that you would come together and feel that love… that safety,” Leen Dweik, 24, told dozens of other River Oaks fans during a vigil after the theatre’s final showings.

Dependent on large crowds to survive, United States (US) movie theatres have been hammered by the pandemic, as they were shut down for months and saw their revenues plunge by 80 per cent in 2020. Although some have managed to survive with the help of aid and through workarounds, Landmark Theatres, which ran the River Oaks, wasn’t able to reach an agreement with its landlord, Weingarten Realty, over rent it couldn’t pay during the pandemic. Weingarten Realty didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Movie theatre trade groups believe their industry will bounce back after the pandemic, in part with the help of more than USD16 billion in federal funding from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant programme. Theatres are also hoping to get a boost from Godzilla vs Kong, one of the first event movies to be released during the pandemic. And there’s cause to be optimistic, as it made USD123.1 million internationally last weekend.

People buying tickets to see films at River Oaks Theatre on the second last day of the theatre in Houston. PHOTO: AP

About 55 per cent of the 5,800 movie theatres in the US are currently open, but many are still saddled by capacity limits and lingering fears about spending long periods in crowded indoor spaces — justifiable, given the recent case surges in some states despite the ongoing vaccination efforts. In China, where the pandemic is well under control, movie-going is close to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re optimistic. Things may change permanently, but it’s not going to be the end of cinema by any means,” said board member Rich Daughtridge with the Independent Cinema Alliance, which represents more than 300 independent theatre owners.

Spokesman Patrick Corcoran for the National Association of Theatre Owners, which also represents larger theatre chains, said his organisation doesn’t have a comprehensive list of theatres that have permanently closed or declared bankruptcy due to the pandemic, but that it’s still a relatively small number.

That may be, but several chains have thrown in the towel or shown they’re in distress. Cinemagic announced in February that it was closing all eight of its locations in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire. And two larger chains — Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas Holdings and the company that owns CMX Cinemas — have filed for bankruptcy protection during the pandemic.

“There are still going to be some tough times after we get back to normal, that may still have some effects on companies,” Corcoran said.

Supporters of the River Oaks, including Linklater and Houston rapper Bun B, hope that the theatre — with its distinctive marquee, Art Deco architecture and ornate carvings — won’t be torn down or drastically altered and might even be used again to show films or host live performances.

The River Oaks opened in 1939 and for the last 45 years, it has mainly operated as an art-house theatre showcasing independent and foreign cinema. Although there are other Houston theatres that show such films, none had the profile of the River Oaks.

“We’re not just losing a movie house,” self-described cinephile Bun B said during the panel discussion. “We’re losing one of those places where artists can come and present themselves to the world, but then also young creators can come and ponder what their future might be.”

River Oaks supporters hope the venue doesn’t have the same fate as another nearby historic theatre that was converted into a Trader Joe’s grocery store. Although the River Oaks received city landmark status when it was in danger of being torn down in 2007, it could still be razed and the notoriously developer-friendly city doesn’t have a great history of preserving its historic buildings, said Sarah Gish, who helped start the group Friends of River Oaks Theatre to try and save the building.

“The main thing is save the building itself because that is the cultural history. We have already lost so much of the history” in Houston, Linklater said.