Keeping The Ark Afloat: South End Movie Theaters Without a Safety Net

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Local cinema houses still have a place in the hearts of our communities, in spite of streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu. In fact, South Seattle’s newest theater arrived on Rainier last summer: The Beacon Cinema, a single-screen 48-seat theater that features an eclectic selection of cult classics and mainstream movies. It’s proof that people still love congregating, feeling the thrill when the lights dim and the movie starts. COVID-19 has unequivocally put a stop to that for the foreseeable future. 

Ark Lodge Cinemas owner David McRae reflected on the day Governor Jay Inslee’s mandated closures went into effect, what he calls the “Ides of March.” “The day we were closed, any type of revenue we were getting was through gift card sales without even promising people when we can reopen. Ninety percent of our monthly revenue was just gone within a day of having to close. It’s very expensive to operate a movie theater with the overhead, and what you share with the major studios, tax revenue, payroll, and the rent. We went from barely being able to pay our bills on a monthly basis to not at all,” McRae said, adding, “We had started suffering a decline in business when the pandemic really started to get a foothold in January and February.”

Columbia City’s Ark Lodge has been a long time purveyor of independent movies and a venue utilized by Seattle International Film Festival and Africatown to host viewings. The Ark received some help in the form of a grant from the Arthouse Convergence, but making sure it stays afloat after pandemic measures relax is going to take work. Distributors of independent films like Magnolia Pictures and Bleecker Street are partnering with indie cinemas like the Ark to stream their movies online. Viewers can purchase what McRae calls “V-Tickets” for access to virtually stream those movies on Ark’s website. The theater will receive 50% of net proceeds. 

“The qualifier is [we get] the net proceeds after they recover their expenses,” McRae clarified. “Of course it’s fair. It’s better than getting nothing. It would be great if [a movie] grossed 5,000 and that we would get 2,500 of it. Yay, that would be awesome, but it’s after they’ve recovered their expenses. It’s better than what the major studios are offering us right now. Major studios are offering us 100 percent of zero. They’re wishing us the best, and hoping they’ll see us on the other side.”

In addition to gift cards and V-Tickets, McRae hopes to offer some Ark swag like T-shirts and posters to help generate income. The Beacon Cinema is also promoting T-shirt and tote bag sales on their social media. 

Now a slightly longer commute due to the West Seattle bridge closure, The Historic Admiral Theater, operating under the local umbrella company of Far Away Entertainment, seems a little less concerned. Far Away Entertainment has nine theaters in mostly “small towns, and in many cases, we’re kinda the only recreational option around,” said Jeff Brein, a managing partner.

Far Away theaters, which includes Anacortes and Bainbridge Cinemas as well as The Admiral, have virtual for-cost offerings through independent distribution companies, free streaming films every Friday through Lionsgate, and free streaming of select public domain movies.

Brein affirmed “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to open sometime in mid to late June or early July.” 

“In all probability when we open we’ll probably do what we were doing when we closed, and that would be limiting the capacity in theaters, maybe selling 50 percent of the seats instead of 100 percent, so that people have plenty of room to move around and not sit right next to somebody. We’re going to accelerate our cleaning. Our employees will probably be wearing masks initially, we’ll have hand sanitizer available for people,” Brein explained.

Regardless of when movie theaters are permitted to reopen, McRae is apprehensive about the possibility of floundering cinemas being bought out by mega corporations, something that happened in the 1918 influenza pandemic. He references a Deadline interview with historian William Mann about how the flu restructured Hollywood and the idea that it could happen again. 

“We have AMC on the verge of bankruptcy. AMC is in the same position I’m in,” McRae said. “Guess who gets to come in and buy out all those major chains now? You might just see Amazon’s AMC theaters or Disney’s Regal.”

With movie theaters facing similar fates to restaurants and live entertainment venues, supporting the Ark Lodge, The Admiral, and The Beacon through buying V-Tickets, gift cards, and merch helps sustain these local cinemas until the COVID-19 closures are lifted. Let’s make sure our theaters will be there for us on the other side, whenever that may be. 

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South-Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image: Ark Lodge Cinemas (Photo: Alex Garland)

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