by Mark Van Streefkerk
When COVID-19 forced Columbia City’s Ark Lodge Cinemas to shutter their doors in March, the sudden loss in revenue dealt a staggering blow to the South End’s few independent movie theaters. Owner David McRae quickly launched several fundraising strategies, and now new managing director Justin Pritchett brings Popcorn Weekends to the Ark. Pulling from his expertise in movie theater food and beverage operations, Pritchett has big plans for keeping the Ark afloat, now and long after the pandemic.
Pritchett became managing director of the Ark Lodge at the end of October, working closely with McRae on both short term and long term survival plans for the Ark. In September when the landlords put the building on the market for $2.5 million, McRae started an ambitious capital campaign and GoFundMe with the goal of raising $3 million to buy the building. Securing the nearly 100-year-old Masonic building will ensure Columbia City and the South End have an independent theater for years to come. As part of the greater fundraising goal, this month McRae and Pritchett started Popcorn Weekends on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pritchett sets up a pop-up at the entrance to the theater, shielded by a plastic divider, and sells bags of flavored popcorn along with other theater candies and soft drinks. This weekend Pritchett will debut a mini donut making machine with several flavor options. Bags (130 oz) of butter flavor popcorn sell for $5, and special flavors like chocolate or caramel popcorn are $6.
“The main goal is to really raise awareness with the community, to let them know what we’re doing, what we have in store and planned,” Pritchett said. “We do have a plan. And we have a plan to diversify.”
For the foreseeable future, Pritchett will continue the Popcorn Weekends, as well as expanding to bulk popcorn sales with several flavor varieties during the week. He will also work with McRae to revamp and expand the Ark’s virtual cinema offerings. Pritchett is optimistic that in January, or whenever COVID-19 restrictions relax, the Ark will be able to offer private rentals, in compliance with strict safety measures.
After it’s safe to resume somewhat-normal cinema operations, Pritchett says the Ark is “not going to be just a movie theater going forward, it’s going to be a movie theater and community-type center.” Pritchett and McRae intend to repurpose the Ruby Room, formerly known as The Prestige Room, as a multi-purpose room. “People can have business meetings, be able to order catering for it. If they’re having a birthday party, a wedding, really anything you can imagine. If they want to bring their Xbox and hook it up so they can play video games, they can really make it their living room.”
Pritchett also imagines the Ark being available for use for film classes, or a place where youth filmmakers can screen their own movies. He also wants to build a ghost kitchen on the second floor, a move particularly beneficial in the wave of pandemic-inspired pop-ups. As well as being available to rent for local chefs, Pritchett wants to spotlight certain restaurants or cuisines, especially in coordination with certain films or events. “If there’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3, we can find a Greek kitchen and have them come in and sell Greek food,” he explained. “Food is one of my passions.”
Much of Pritchett’s own life has revolved around movie theaters. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Pritchett’s family moved to the Shoreline area when he was 2. “When I was a kid in the first and second grade, I lived right down the street from the Crest Cinemas,” he remembered. “That’s where I really started having the joy of going to the movies, meeting my friends at the 7-Eleven and sneaking in snacks to the Crest and going to watch a $2 movie.”
Pritchett started working at the Metro Cinema (now the AMC Seattle 10) in the University District in 2005 as a floor staff employee. In fact, it was at the Metro where he met his wife Cedar. Since the Metro was part of the Landmark theater chain, Pritchett also helped out at other Landmark theaters like the Varsity, Guild 45, Egyptian, Harvard Exit, and Seven Gables. He advanced to shift lead, assistant manager, and later food and beverage manager as Metro changed over to Sundance Cinemas, which was later acquired by AMC.
In 2017, Pritchett and his family moved to California where he worked as food and beverage director for Korean-based movie theater company CGB Cinemas. He advanced to director of operations at CGB, before the family decided to move back to Seattle this year to be closer to Cedar’s grandmother. Pritchett was introduced to McRae through a mutual projectionist friend. Pritchett and McRae hit it off after an initial two-and-a-half-hour phone conversation about the Ark Lodge and cinema operations. Shortly after, McRae offered Pritchett the position of managing director.
“[The Ark] reminds me so much of a theater that could have been part of the Landmark chain,” Pritchett said. “It’s like a mixture of the Varsity, Harvard Exit, and the Guild all-in-one. It felt like I was coming into a theater I had been working in for years.”
In a Facebook post, McRae proudly announced Pritchett and his family would be the eventual new owners of the cinema with the passing of the Golden Reel. “His family has been in the movie theater business industry for all of his life,” Pritchett said. “I can see the joy that it brings when he watches my 6-year-old Khaleesi run around in the theater.”
If McRae and Pritchett get the funding and support they need, the Ark Lodge could continue to be a family-run community hub for years to come.
Pritchett urges supporters to buy popcorn at Popcorn Weekends, contribute to the GoFundMe, and let legislators know that “small theaters are businesses as well” when it comes to getting aid.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Photo by Clare McGrane