Sun File Photo

Previously, students would line up to get tickets to screenings at Cornell Cinema in Willard Straight Hall. Now, cinemas have had to adjust to online streaming and other methods to survive.

April 20, 2020

Cinema Survives in Ithaca’s ‘Art House’ Movie Theaters

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While the pandemic may have forced Cornell Cinema and Cinemapolis to close their doors, Ithaca’s two “art house” theaters are determined to help cinema survive in their absence.

With no tickets or popcorn to sell, the two cinemas, which tend to focus on non-mainstream releases, have explored ways to partially replace lost revenue — such as switching to online streaming and finding alternate sources of funding.

“It’s sort of reversing our usual relationship with distributors.” said Brett Bossard, executive director of Cinemapolis, in an interview with The Sun. “Typically, we sell a ticket, and at the end of the week we send a portion of those profits back to the distribution company, and now it’s the opposite.”

Cornell Cinema currently offers Cornell students a free three-month trial for MUBI, a movie subscription service. It also has promoted events like the Ann Arbor and Visions du Réel film festivals, once in-person celebrations of indie film-making now streamed free of charge online.

Both theaters are doing their best to manage behind-the-scenes work. The staff at Cornell Cinema works remotely — finishing yearly reports, improving the theater’s website and planning the cinema’s upcoming 50th anniversary from home. Cinemapolis employees spend much of their time communicating with movie distributors and staying engaged with the Ithaca community.

Notably, while national chains, like AMC, teter on the edge of bankruptcy, neither cinema anticipates New York’s stay-at-home orders to pose an existential threat.

Mary Fessenden, Cornell Cinema director, credited this to a “surprisingly good” year of ticket sales, the addition of an all-access pass for the school year and funding from the College of Arts and Sciences.

Cinemapolis, similarly, has relied on its membership program as an important source of funding.

“We had a lot of current members who donated financial gifts right away and a whole slew of brand new members came on board and have continued to [contribute] since we announced the closure,” Bossard told The Sun.

In addition to community support, Cinemapolis continues to sell gift cards in anticipation of eventually re-opening and also made use of relief funds available through federal stimulus packages.

Thanks to this aid, Bossard denied the possibility of layoffs, saying that he was committed to retaining all employees for the foreseeable future.

But given Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) recent decision to extend the closure of non-essential businesses until at least May 15, Bossard thought it is unlikely that Cinemapolis will open soon.

When restrictions begin to lift, he anticipates the implementation of additional safety measures for staff members and moviegoers, including longer times between screenings and regular disinfectant wipe downs.

Cornell Cinema intends to defer to the University’s reopening timeline, “waiting to learn more about what the University’s plans and policies will be,” Fessender said, “before we start committing to any programming.”

Nevertheless, in the meantime, the theater intends to provide content and support to its patrons.

“Lucky for Cornell Cinema, we’re not completely dependent on new products,” Fessender said. “We’ll be able to program with more classics and cult films to fill out our schedule as needed.”

Fessbender said he expects widespread theater closings to cause major disruptions to the film industry, speculating that it will be difficult to determine what the future of movies holds.

However, Bossard said he believes in the resilience of film and the importance of physical theaters.

“I do think that there is something special and really culturally important about getting together in a dark room with neighbors, strangers, community members to communally experience an art form,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to go away.”