by Mark Van Streefkerk
These days, The Ark Lodge Cinemas is in a much different place than it was last year, and the return of summer blockbusters is part of the upswing. Columbia City’s only movie theater weathered the pandemic through generous contributions from community members, a bold new plan for the future conceived by Managing Director Justin Pritchett, and the sheer grit of owner David McRae. During last year’s pandemic-induced closure, McRae launched an ambitious GoFundMe campaign and promoted T-shirt and gift card sales, all with the aim of keeping past-due bills at bay and fighting for the future of the Ark.
The light at the end of the tunnel came during the last week of February when the Ark reopened at 25% capacity with movies Nomadland and Raya and the Last Dragon. Attendance was low, but those numbers slowly began to rise as people continued to get vaccinated. Now that the state has lifted almost all COVID restrictions, audiences are steadily returning to the Ark for summer movie events like In the Heights, A Quiet Place Part II, F9 and Marvel Studios’ Black Widow.
“More people are getting vaccinated, and now people really want to get out and just relax and be entertained and … be in a nice air-conditioned theater while you’re waiting for your house to cool down at home,” McRae said.
During last week’s unprecedented heat wave, the theater received numerous phone calls per hour from people asking if the Ark had air conditioning. In fact, McRae finally put a public service announcement on the Ark’s Twitter and Instagram accounts: “Air Conditioned For Your Comfort,” the vintage-inspired graphic said. The number of phone inquiries dwindled, but ultimately the increased business for the Ark is a welcome step towards a bright future.
“People are still wary about coming into the theater,” Pritchett said, “but with A Quiet Place Part II, that’s when we started to see a little pick up of people coming back to the theater … there are sell-outs like In the Heights where we’ve had to turn away people because that does sell [out] quickly.”
McRae said, “We think the turning point really will be with Black Widow — even though that’s still being streamed, I think it’s one of those films that people are excited to see on a big screen and maybe come see it twice.”
McRae explained that during the pandemic many film studios delayed the release of certain movies because they knew the audience wouldn’t be able to enjoy them in a theater. Throughout last year studios also released films via streaming platforms, a feature that’s probably here to stay even as theaters reopen. This was one factor Pritchett and McRae took into consideration when brainstorming a plan to bring the Ark into the “next normal” of entertainment.
“Things will never be the same, and that’s why Justin has this business plan to diversify [the business],” McRae said. “We are still going to be your neighborhood moviehouse to come and see first-run entertainment, but we’re also going to explore other avenues of entertainment as well.”
Pritchett has a vision for the Ark that includes live music, comedy, a rotating independent filmmaker spotlight, and a kitchen. Diversifying the Ark’s offerings started in January when the theater started renting out The Prestige Room to groups for private events. Pritchett said that the room has been rented out for birthday and graduation parties, photo shoots, and small group screenings of new movies. Small groups can even apply for a banquet license so they can serve their own alcoholic drinks for private functions in The Prestige Room.
The Ark’s first comedy show is slated at the end of July, featuring Texas-based stand-up comedian Steven Farmer. “He started doing Cinema Comedy Tours,” explained Pritchett. “He started doing it at drive-ins in Texas. He’s gone around to other places like L.A. doing drive-in stand-up comedy.” Pritchett hopes that the event will be a good preview of the Ark’s plans to diversify. “Eventually, you can come down to the Ark Lodge if you want to watch a movie, listen to a music performance, or listen to a comedian.”
Towards the end of the summer the Ark expects to have their beer and wine license as well as hot food offerings like mini pizzas and hot dogs in addition to their current selections of popcorn, Jones Soda, and Full Tilt Ice Cream. They also sell delicious crispy rice treats. Pritchett’s brother makes a marshmallow fluff from scratch for the treats in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry flavors.
At the moment it’s only Pritchett and McRae steering the Ark over the last waves of pandemic restrictions. Some of the Ark’s next steps are to generate enough revenue from summer movie sales to catch up with back bills and eventually hire staff. Summer blockbusters should help with that, but the Ark also wants to get back to their independent and arthouse roots as well. One independent film now playing is Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Directed by Questlove, Summer of Soul is culled from 40 hours of footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — footage that had previously sat in a basement for about 50 years. The film includes live performances from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and more.
There are plenty of projects still in the works on the way to the Ark becoming a fully-diversified entertainment center, but McRae has good reason to be hopeful. Last year the landlords put the historic building that houses the Ark Lodge for sale for $2.5 million, but Pritchett reported it has since been taken off of the market.
“I’m really excited about this collaboration with Justin, and with him on board as my operating business partner and eventual owner of the theater … I am optimistic. I can see that there is a bright future for the Ark Lodge,” McRae said.
The Ark Lodge Cinemas is currently open Thursday through Sunday at 50% capacity. Masks are required when moving through the cinema, although not while eating or drinking in your theater seat. Buying tickets online beforehand is recommended.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website at markvanstreefkerk.com and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.
The exterior of The Ark Lodge Cinemas has been illuminated by a purple light ever since Prince died in 2016. (Photo by Galen Andrus)