It was Friday the 13th when the Frida Cinema hosted a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a tradition that takes place on the second Friday of each month. It began like every other monthly screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” does — sold out.
However, around 15 to 20 fans refunded their tickets before the showing. The fans who did attend received another surprise when the Frida Cinema’s executive director, Logan Crow, announced that this would be the theater’s last showing for a while. The date was March 13, 2020, and as days passed, movie theaters across Southern California began to shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” said Trevor Dillon, the Frida Cinema’s programming director. “We just knew it was coming.”
The Frida Cinema is a non-profit independent arthouse theater in Santa Ana, the only one in Orange County. The theater was founded by Logan Crow in 2014, and he is currently the theater’s executive director. While he was sad to close the theater, he was not devastated because he knew the theater’s closure was out of his and his staff’s hands.
“I had a very Zen reaction to it,” Crow said. “We’re all in this together because it was something that we’re all doing, and it had nothing to do with the Frida as an institution.”
Crow was more concerned about his staff during the pandemic. Along with every other movie theater across America, the Frida has shut its doors for the foreseeable future. The closure has resulted in the loss of concessions and venue rentals, the Frida’s two largest sources of revenue. Yet, Crow and his staff at the Frida have adapted to the unusual circumstances to create revenue with the help of their film distributors.
The distributors often provided the Frida with independent films to screen in its two auditoriums. Since the pandemic began, the Frida and other arthouse theaters have partnered with these distributors to make their films available to rent digitally. The Frida usually makes about 50% off these rental revenues.
Partnering with these studios has given the Frida an opportunity to make revenue while the theater is closed, and it has also allowed them to expand their output. This past week, the Frida opened 17 new films on Thursday, the most they have ever screened in one day.
In addition to streaming films virtually, the Frida staff has created more internal content for its patrons to enjoy. Crow hosts a weekly show every Saturday called This Cinematic Life, in which he and two co-hosts name the best films for cinephiles to stream at home.
Another big boost to helping the Frida and its staff during these times have been donations. When the theater initially closed, Crow had to furlough the staff, including Dillon. Even though Dillon was only furloughed for four days, the uncertainty of his situation weighed heavily on him.
“Those four days were really tough,” Dillon said. “I didn’t know it was going to be four days. I thought I was just going to be furloughed for the entire COVID pandemic.”
However, with the help of community fundraising and a disaster relief loan from the Small Business Administration, Crow was able to bring Dillon and the rest of the Frida staff back from furlough.
One way the Frida has been crowdfunding donations is by hosting several stream-a-thons over the past two months. With their first stream-a-thon, Crow hoped to make enough to cover insurance for his employees for at least a month. Instead, they made enough to cover their employees’ insurance for three months.
These stream-a-thons have lasted nearly 12 hours, and they have raised up to $2,700. Guests on the stream-a-thons include distributors who want to showcase trailers for the theater’s upcoming films and volunteers who have worked or are working at the Frida.
The Frida has also received donations through QuaranZine, an e-zine made up of work from local artists. The 43-page e-zine is made up of poetry, short screenplays, sheet music, graphic art, graphic poetry, a coloring page and other work from local artists. The e-zine can be found on the Frida’s website and can be purchased for $5, which goes to support the theater.
While the Frida’s staff have still been able to share films with their patrons, they still miss those day-to-day interactions with their patrons and co-workers.
“It was very important that we keep that spirit alive however we can while our doors were closed.”
When the Frida does reopen, it will be with stipulations for the safety of its patrons. Crow is planning to limit capacity to 50 people per screen, nearly a quarter of the 205 seats in each theater. While Crow has heard of other theaters removing seats in order to enforce social distancing, he does not believe this will be necessary, as he wants people that lived together through quarantine to sit next to each other. He will have ushers escort patrons to their seats and make sure they are sitting a considerable distance apart.
To enforce social distancing and good health, patrons will have to wear a mask while inside the theater. Staff will also wipe down the armrests and chairs in the theaters between showings, a practice they had already begun before closing back in March.
However, Crow does not have a date for when the Frida will reopen. Under California Governor Gavin Newsom’s four-phase plan to reopen the state, movie theaters such as the Frida would fall under phase three. Newsom started phase two of reopening the state this past Friday.
Crow does believe it will be easier for the Frida to reopen than major theater chains such as AMC and Regal. Most of this year’s blockbusters have been delayed because of the pandemic, with the earliest coming in late July with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”
Some studios released their films directly to video-on-demand, such as “Trolls: World Tour.” This strategy has been successful for Universal Studios, with NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell suggesting that the studio may release their films in theaters and on VOD simultaneously in the future. This caused strife between Universal Studios and the theater chain AMC.
While Crow is afraid of people staying home to stream new movies, he believes the Frida will not face similar challenges when they reopen because their tickets are inexpensive and the films they play are not high-profile releases that need to attract large audiences.
Crow has not decided which films they will play when they reopen, but he knows he wants these films to communicate the importance of seeing a film on the big screen.
“Whether it’s because your mind is blown by the visuals or it’s a cult film that’s a blast to take in with a community of people around you, these things cannot be replicated at home” Crow said.
While he looks forward to the return of watching movies on the big screen, he also wants to continue some of the practices they began during the pandemic. He will continue to team up with distributors to stream independent films in order to give film fans more options.
“I would love to see a future where we go back to normal and continue to embrace this new content,” Crow said.
This is part of the series, “The People of the Pandemic” where the Daily Titan will tell the stories of how COVID-19 has affected the lives of Orange County.