Local Movie Theater Owners Face Uncertain Path Ahead
Harman Moseley has seen plenty of evolution in the film exhibition industry since he got his start in it in August 1977. He’s operated well over a dozen venues in the St. Louis market in the decades since.
“We’ve seen the introduction of first VHS, then cable, then DVD and now streaming,” Moseley, now the owner of Chase Park Plaza Cinema in the Central West End, explained to St. Louis on the Air. “And even before my career there was television, and then there was color television. So through [the past] 100-plus years of cinema, movie theaters have always faced challenges, and there have always been doomsayers that have said this is the end of exhibition as we know it.”
But Moseley called the onslaught of streaming services and a global pandemic, combined, a paradigm shift.
“We just honestly don’t know how it’s going to work out,” he told St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis.
Chase Park Plaza Cinema closed March 16, 2020, among the initial COVID-19 shutdowns. And for the first three months, Moseley said, he and the staff kept expecting to be open in a couple of weeks.
“The guidance regarding COVID was everchanging, and it was never ever clear what was happening,” he recalled. “Finally in August … theaters tried to reopen. So we tried to reopen with a limited schedule — we’d lost all of our staff, equipment had sat empty, and there was a lot involved [in starting back up]. But when we opened with ‘Tenet,’ there just wasn’t the audience.
“The biggest crowd we had was 13 people, and the biggest day, with five shows in a day, was 100 people. So we quickly realized that this was unsustainable, that it was too early. But we also realized it had been a lot to get a staff together and get all the equipment back and running.”
Moseley and the team started doing private, small events where people brought in videos of their own for birthday parties and other occasions.
“It wasn’t really a business, but it did keep a few of the staff [on] and the equipment running,” Moseley said.
He also owned the Moolah Theatre & Lounge, which never reopened after closing in the spring of 2020. But the pandemic wasn’t the only factor in the Moolah’s end.
“The fact that [it’s] such a big space and had to have its own staff, it was not a viable economic operation for at least 18 months prior,” Moseley said, “and we just held on trying to find a path forward and to see if there was another use that we could partner up with. … We tried every other possible venue to try to save the space because it was such a great space, but the audience there just was inconsistent.
“You only had one film to attract [a crowd], and if that film was not popular, then you had two weeks where you absolutely were doing nothing but losing money and hoping that the next film would work.”
Sarah Baraba, co-owner of Arkadin Cinema & Bar, was preparing to open the business in St. Louis’ Bevo Mill neighborhood just when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Arkadin had envisioned showing a mix of cutting-edge indie and foreign films, timeless classics and cult favorites inside the space they purchased along Gravois Avenue.
“Two days after we picked up our building plans from the city, the city shut down,” Baraba recalled. “And we kind of hit the pause button.”
But last summer, Arkadin pivoted and began showing movies on the backlot of the building.
“And we’ve been showing movies outside ever since,” Baraba said.
They still have plans to open inside screenings before the end of this year but are proceeding cautiously.
“I think people are still kind of on the fence about what feels safe at the moment, especially with the delta variant cases going up,” Baraba said. “So I think we’re cautiously optimistic.”
With theaters old and new, and big and small, now opening back up, programming decisions remain a major challenge in Baraba’s view.
“We’re trying to program fun movies but also things that are on the more eclectic side that people wouldn’t normally see in the theaters,” she explained. “We’re just trying to gauge what are people going to be interested in coming out to see versus what are they going to watch at their house.”
Moseley is grappling with such questions as well. He’s not sure whether the industry can bounce back.
“We’re in uncharted, new territory. … [But] exhibition is a resilient industry, and it’s an ingrained pastime in the American public,” he said, adding that there are still certain films best experienced on the big screen.
“The exhibitors have tried to re-create your BarcaLounger, sitting in front of your television, only all magnified with the big screen with the luxury seating and having food delivered. Whether that takes off or survives remains to be seen.”
In the meantime, Moseley is slowly ramping up Chase Park Plaza Cinema operations — and keeping his eye on the movie studios, too.
“[They’re] a business that is very subject to changing their mind. While the subscription model is their darling at the moment, the moment that they see revenues from theaters spike and see it as a viable way to get a return on their investment, they’re going to do it.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.