The Best Movies That Helped Independent Cinemas: ‘Dune’, ‘West Side Story’

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  • Independent cinemas in the United States have evolved their programming strategies during the pandemic.
  • Many played commercial films with broader appeal like “Dune” and “No Time to Die”.
  • “West Side Story” and “In the Heights” flopped nationwide, but were hits for some independent theaters.

The pandemic has devastated the American theater industry. But it is slowly recovering, and independent cinemas in particular have shown resilience in adapting to the changing market.

Insider recently spoke with arthouse theater operators in the United States about how their theaters have stayed afloat over the past two years. The most common thread was that they evolved their programming strategies to release big-budget commercial films that they may not have had before the pandemic.

Adam Birnbaum, director of film programming for Avon Theater in Stamford, Connecticut and consultant for independent theaters across the United States, told Insider that many theaters are scheduling films with broader appeal.

The movies most often cited by theater operators Insider spoke to included:

  • “Dunes”
  • “In the Heights”
  • “No Time to Die”
  • “West Side Story”

One such theater was the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. Ian Judge, the theatre’s creative director, said ‘Dune’ and ‘No Time to Die’ were the most successful films for the theater last year.

Movies like “Licorice Pizza” and “The French Dispatch,” which usually played in arthouses, also did well, he said, but not as well as they would have liked. done in a normal year. He said the arthouse business “isn’t back to normal yet.”

“Strategically speaking, for better or for worse, decisions have been based on the films made available,” Birnbaum said of Avon. “You have to make decisions based on what’s in front of you.”

Independent theaters have had to attract different demographics during the pandemic

“West Side Story” was Avon’s most successful film last year, Birnbaum said, even though it flopped at the overall box office. The Steven Spielberg-directed remake, which cost $100 million to produce, earned just $38 million in the United States.

“‘West Side Story’ is a perfect example of a film that, with a robust film pipeline, might not have been a film we would have played in the past,” he said. “But it was like the good movie at the time.”

Andrew Mencher, director of programming and operations at the Avalon Theater in Washington, DC, called these films “smarthouse.” He said any art house cinemas that did not expand their lineup were “further behind”.

Rachel Zegler in West Side Story

Rachel Zegler as Maria in “West Side Story”.

20th century workshops


Mencher said the top-grossing movie of the Avalon last year was “In the Heights,” another musical that underperformed at the box office nationwide with $30 million (he was simultaneously available on


HBO Max

). But for the Avalon, it was the first film to screen in theaters after more than a year of closure due to the pandemic.

The film was also a standout last year for Chicago’s Music Box Theater, said general manager Ryan Oestreich. The theater, known before the pandemic for playing new arthouse dramas alongside classic films and cult horror films, even played “Godzilla vs. Kong” last year.

“Our demos tended to be older, but now it’s the 20s and 30s coming out,” Oestreich said.

Art house cinemas always do what they do best

Just because independent theaters have adapted to the changing market doesn’t mean they’ve given up on what made them popular in their local communities.

Executives Insider spoke to said they still play arthouse movies, but are fewer and more distant now. Anthony Bourdain’s film “Roadrunner” and “Pig” starring Nicolas Cage were hits for Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon, according to theater operator Tom Ranieri (“Pig” was filmed in Oregon and director , Michael Sarnoski, visited the theater last year, Ranieri said).

They also continue to schedule events that set them apart from the big movie chains.

The Texas Theater in Dallas, for example, was renovated while theatrical screenings were closed during the pandemic, and added a second screen for the first time since it opened in 1931. The second screen allowed it to play films popular ones, like “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” owner Barak Epstein said.

But it also offers repertoire programming from older films like “A Clockwork Orange,” which sold out in September, and hosts events, like a screening of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” with a live drag show. direct.

“We don’t have all our eggs in one basket,” Epstein said.

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