Thursday: Local movie theater owners face uncertain path

This interview will air on “St. Louis on the Air” during the noon hour Thursday. A podcast version of the show will be added to this article after the show. You can Listen live.

Harman Moseley has seen a lot of evolution in the motion picture exhibition industry since making his debut there in August 1977. He has operated over a dozen theaters in the St. Louis market over the years. decades that followed.

“We saw the introduction of the first VHS, then cable, then DVD and now streaming,” said Moseley, now owner of the Chase Park Plaza cinema in the Central West End. Saint Louis on the air. “And even before my career, there was television, then there was color television. So through [the past] Over 100 years of cinema, movie theaters have always faced challenges, and there have always been doomers who said this was the end of the show as we know it.

But Moseley called the assault on streaming services and a global pandemic, combined, a paradigm shift.

“Honestly, we don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” he told Chad Davis of St. Louis Public Radio.

The Chase Park Plaza Theater closed on March 16, 2020, amid the initial COVID-19 closures. And for the first three months, Moseley said, he and the staff expected to be open in a matter of weeks.

“COVID guidelines were constantly evolving, and it was never clear what was going on,” he recalled. “Finally in August… the cinemas tried to reopen. So we tried to reopen with a limited schedule – we had lost all of our staff, the equipment was empty and there was a lot to do [in starting back up]. But when we opened with ‘Tenet’ there just wasn’t the audience.

“The biggest crowd we had was 13 people, and the biggest day, with five shows a day, was 100 people. So we quickly realized that it was unbearable, that it was too early. But we also realized that it had been a lot to get the staff together and get all the equipment back up and running. “

Moseley and the team started hosting small private events where people brought their own videos for birthdays and other occasions.

“It wasn’t really a business, but it kept a few staff [on] and the equipment on, ”Moseley said.

He also owned the Moolah Theater & Lounge, which never reopened after it closed in the spring of 2020. But the pandemic was not the only factor in Moolah’s end.

“The fact that [it’s] such a large space and had to have its own staff, it was not a viable economic operation for at least 18 months before, “Moseley said,” and we just tried to find a way forward and see if it there was another use. who we could partner with. … We tried every other place we could to try and save space because it was such a big space, but the audience there was just inconsistent.

“You only had one film to attract [a crowd], and if that movie wasn’t popular, then you had two weeks where you did absolutely nothing but waste money and hope the next movie would work.

Sarah Baraba, co-owner of Arkadin Cinema & Bar, was preparing to open the business in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of St. Louis just as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Arkadin had planned to show a mix of cutting edge independent and foreign films, timeless classics and cult films in the space they purchased along Gravois Avenue.

“Two days after we got our construction plans in the city, the city closed its doors,” Baraba recalls. “And we kind of hit the pause button.”

But last summer, Arkadin pivoted and started showing movies on the backlot of their building.

“And since then we’ve been showing films outdoors,” Baraba said.

They still plan to open indoor screenings before the end of this year, but are proceeding with caution.

“I think people are still a bit on the fence about what feels safe at the moment, especially with the increase in cases of the delta variant,” Baraba said. “So I think we are cautiously optimistic.”

With theaters old and new, large and small, reopening now, programming decisions remain a major challenge for Baraba.

“We try to program fun movies but also things that are more eclectic that people wouldn’t normally see in theaters,” she explained. “We’re just trying to gauge what people are going to be interested in seeing versus what they are going to watch in their homes.”

Moseley grapples with such questions as well. It is not certain that the industry can bounce back.

“We are in new uncharted territory. … [But] exhibition is a resilient industry, and it’s a hobby that is rooted in American audiences, ”he said, adding that there are still some better-lived films on the big screen.

“The exhibitors tried to recreate your BarcaLounger, sitting in front of your TV, only enlarged with the big screen with the luxury seats and the food delivery. Whether this takes off or survives remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Moseley is slowly ramping up operations at the Chase Park Plaza cinema – and keeping an eye on movie studios as well.

“[They’re] a business that is very prone to change its mind. While the subscription model is their darling right now, as soon as they see movie theater revenues skyrocket and see it as a viable way to get a return on their investment, they’re going to do it.

See you Thursday Saint Louis on the air for the full conversation.

Saint Louis on the air”Brings you the stories of Saint-Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah fenske and produced by Alex heuer, Emily woodbury, Evie hemphill and Lara hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The sound engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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