We are now approaching the one year mark since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States and upended the way that people lived their daily lives. Offices closed, forcing people to work from home or even lose their jobs; restaurants and theaters were shut down, causing people to lose a sense of their regular lives. These changes marked the end of life as it was known pre-pandemic and created what some are calling a “new normal.” As the pandemic continues, new adaptations have spawned out of trying to navigate life in today’s crisis. One way that theaters are trying to stay alive during the pandemic is offering private screenings for groups who want to have a silver screen experience with their bubble.
In Boston, theaters have opened and closed again due to the changing protocols of the number of cases rising and falling. Some theaters, however, have just remained closed since the start of the pandemic. The Somerville Theatre, located in Davis Square, has now been closed since March 16th, 2020. On their webpage, they announced that the theater will remain closed “until public safety related to the COVID-19 pandemic is restored.”
Other theaters, however, have been finding ways to still let customers enjoy their space without the risk of being in a public audience. When the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square reopened in July, they discovered that private screening solutions had been used in other areas of the country and decided that it would be safer for their staff and would make it easier for them to monitor COVID-19 safety. It’s also very expensive for them to screen movies, so a full reopening with a restricted amount of customers was not financially feasible for the Brattle.
Ivy Moylan is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Brattle Theatre who spoke about their decision to do private screenings. “It was a combination of a financial and a health response,” said Moylan. “And we stuck with it because the staff feels really safe, as does the public.”
Moylan hopes that the private screenings can offer a sense of solace to moviegoers in a world now constantly battling risk assessment for going out. “The nice thing about the private rentals is that the people renting the space don’t have to worry about that” she added “They’re with a group of people that they trust.”
The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square is another popular independent theatre in the Boston area, offering private screenings for groups of up to 15 people at the cost of $350 a screening. The price may be steep for a trip to the movies, but it’s not cheap for the theater to staff and run a film, which is where the additional costs come from.
These screenings can be chosen from a selection of movies such as the theatre’s 35mm prints, a collection of Blu-Ray films, or the viewer’s own movies. They have their own set of rental guidelines, which includes requests that the movie remain under 120 minutes and that the group signs a waiver stating that they are COVID-19 free.
"It's been a way to bring some kind of positive experience for people in the community and be able to keep staff employed,” says Moylan.
The Coolidge Corner Theatre also turned to private screenings as an alternative for movie goers during the pandemic. They offer what they call a Private Movie Party, where they rent out their different screening rooms to customers. They also have an option where you can watch their “Premium Programming,” with new movies such as Nomadland and Minari. According to their website, they “are delighted to be able to offer a safe and fun way for you to watch movies on the big screen again while supporting the Coolidge during this unprecedented time.” The prices range from $250 to $500 depending on the size of the group and room that is being rented.
Independent cinemas, however, are not the only ones offering to rent out their theatres. AMC offers a similar option to their customers as of last November. They allow up to 20 guests in a theatre for a rental price of $99 for their “fan favorite” movies and $149 for their new releases. This option is only necessary if the customer is uncomfortable with sharing their theatre, as the AMC locations in Boston (AMC Boston Common 19 and AMC South Bay Center 12) are reopened as of February 2021.
This adjustment comes with the decision from the Massachusetts government to move on to Step 2 of Phase 3. This new step includes the opening of restaurants with no capacity limits and reopening of indoor performance venues with 50% capacity.
Film critic Sean Burns who resides in the Boston area is optimistic about theatres reopening in the fall and the comeback of releases of films in theatres. “If everything goes well with vaccinations, I think we’ll see a nice uptick in numbers [of people going to movies] again,” Burns says, adding “I can’t spend another year watching this stuff at home.”
Vaccinations being the key to returning to the movies might not be so far into the future as it had once seemed. The Massachusetts guidelines for vaccination changed recently and people over the age of just 16 will be eligible for the vaccine after April 19th, 2021. This new phase in the vaccine process will hopefully return audiences to movie theatres in the Boston area and give independent cinemas their opportunity to stay open. However, with movie theatres reopening, the trend of private screening may be imminent.
For the Brattle, “the end of the pandemic will mean the end of private screenings,” said Moylan. Until that point, however, she sees the possibility of doing a hybrid schedule of private rentals and regular screenings. This possibility could look like doing films on Fridays and continuing the private screenings the rest of the days that they’re open. “Once we’re ready to reopen, we won’t be open seven days a week,” she said. “We’ll expand as the audience is ready.” When the Brattle will expand, Moylan is looking forward to programming content seven days a week.