MONTCLAIR, NJ — The aspirational words “If You Build It They Will Come” from Field of Dreams have graced the marquee of the in-development Bellevue Montclair for months, but life just threw the Bellevue a curveball.
With the coronavirus pandemic upending nearly every aspect of American society, the film industry is facing monumental challenges and deep uncertainty over its future.
Theaters across the country have closed due to social distancing guidelines, forcing audiences to flee to the safety of online streaming services. The demand for visual storytelling is as great as ever, but there is a looming question. How will movie watchers consume films in the future?
In Montclair, there is a lot of love for the film industry. Until recently, the town of 40,000 boasted two multi-screen independent theaters, showing a mix of films. The annual Montclair Film Festival is entering its 10th year and is championed by residents such as late-night host Stephen Colbert and actor Patrick Wilson. Scenes from “Mean Girls” and “The Sopranos” were shot at Montclair High School. Many residents remember watching the latest blockbusters at the Bellevue Theatre. The theater did not have the best seats or screens, but it was conveniently located and well-loved as a family-friendly space. But when Bow Tie Cinemas, the operators of the theater, declined to renew its lease on the Bellevue in late 2017, projectors shut off after 95 years and the theater closed.
“I thought it was a shame that the town was losing a local theater that showed more mainstream and widely-known films,” said Kathleen King, a recent Montclair High School graduate and a film and screen studies major at Bates College. “The Bellevue Theater was one of the first places that my mom let me go with my friends. Not only was the Bellevue Theater a theater, but the beginning steps to my maturity.”
Soon after its closure, a group of business partners largely made up of Montclair residents announced in 2019 that they were planning to renovate and reopen the theater for Montclair to once again enjoy thanks to a new team, operating as Bellevue Enterprises.
The Bellevue Montclair has not been completed yet and will now remain shuttered until after the pandemic ends, with plans for it to open sometime in 2021. Still, its new owners are very aware of the struggles that may come to the industry once theaters across the country are allowed to reopen.
“In the short term, there is going to be some apprehension about going back into crowds,” said Brandon Jones, co-founder and Head of Marketing of Bellevue Enterprises and the founder and CEO of Film Frog, a cinema marketing company. “But I think that it is going to dissipate quickly. When it comes to movie theaters, ultimately, content drives the attendance. We are not going to see Avengers or Star Wars levels of response at first. It’s going to take a few really thoughtful pieces, as the temperature has suddenly changed to consider the human condition.”
Jones explained that movie theaters are not just about films, but rather the communal experience of watching them – people come back to theaters because they want to share emotions and stories at the same place and time. However, he did acknowledge that theaters have to keep up with advances in technology and services to remain relevant.
A number of films that were supposed to be shown in theaters during the months of February, March and April have instead been released digitally or delayed until later in the year, which is unprecedented for studio films. Universal Studios released a slew of films planned for theatrical release on digital platforms, such as “The Invisible Man” and “Birds of Prey”, which are available for on-demand purchase now, and for rental in a few weeks. Sony Pictures, another major movie studio, delayed all of its planned 2020 releases to 2021.
As the amount of content being streamed increases during the pandemic, some worry that once it’s over, people will not want to return to theaters, opting instead to stream new releases from home. In a recent Instagram poll, 53 percent of respondents aged 17-20 answered that they would like to see an increasing number of new movies be released digitally as opposed to theatrically. Some still prefer the theater, but streaming numbers are the highest they have ever been. If people begin to prefer to stay at home instead of seeing it on the big screen, significant problems will arise for those who make a living producing, distributing and showing films.
“After coronavirus, life will become normal and we will go back to the movies, I have no doubt about that,” said John Hoffman, an independent filmmaker and the former Executive Vice President of Documentaries for Discovery. “The same filmmakers who wanted their films experienced in a theater before coronavirus will choose a theatrical premiere over an online one after coronavirus because it’s only with that collective, theatrical experience that you can feel the true impact of your work on an audience. The online premier might be a financially rewarding one, but it’s relatively empty emotionally for filmmakers.”
While the filmmaker’s experience is important, the audiences’ experience is what truly matters when it comes to watching films. Jones predicts that chain theaters will not meet the demands of audiences in the same way that independent theaters will. Plans for his Bellevue Theater include a bar, restaurant, luxury seating and healthy dine-in options, as well as spaces for community events and conversations.
“I think that five years from now there will still be traditional theaters, but any new theaters built will be remiss if they aren’t built for their specific community, not just big cookie-cutter theaters,” said Jones. “The big analogy to make about digital streaming is that most people have a kitchen in their home, yet they still go out to eat. The fact of the matter is that this is just an intermission.”
“Anyone you talk to wants to have a sense of togetherness more than anything right now,” said Luke Parker Bowles, co-founder and Managing Director of Bellevue Enterprises and a senior executive at the Montclair Film Festival. “We crave that connection. Being able to laugh or cry together in a movie theater is like nothing else. I truly think that’s where we are at our best.”
Lucas Cooperman is a rising sophomore at Northeastern University, studying media, screen studies and journalism.