Bantam Cinema opened in 1927 as the Rivoli Theater in Litchfield. It survived the end of silent film and the rise of the talkies; the onset of television and the birth and then death of video rental stores; and endured, perhaps with a few bruises, the streaming era and challenges of a film industry increasingly geared toward comic book adaptations.
But it couldn’t survive COVID-19.
The oldest continually operated movie theater in Connecticut closed its doors in March during the state shutdown. In June its current owners announced that closure would be permanent unless they find a buyer.
Sidney Koch, who purchased the theater with others in 2007, says the business had grown increasingly challenging in recent years and that COVID-19 “was the last straw.” But, from potential buyers, “there is a considerable amount of interest. There are some people who have extraordinarily clever and, what appear to me, very viable plans.”
“I think it's important to maintain the theater,” he says. “It hasn't been permanently closed in 93 years and I wouldn't like to be the first one to close it.”
Whoever buys it will be entering uncharted waters for independent and commercial theaters. Bethel Cinema, a longtime favorite in the Danbury area for arthouse films, announced it was closed for good in April, though its owners, like Bantam Cinema's, hope to find a buyer. The Gilson Cafe & Cinema in Winsted resorted to a GoFundMe campaign to survive the shutdown and raised nearly $27,000 in donations before its planned reopening in July. And independent theaters in Connecticut are not the only theaters struggling. The major movie chain AMC announced a first quarter loss of $2.2 billion, while the CEO of Cinemark, another large movie chain, says he doesn’t expect the industry to return to normal until 2022.
Adam Birnbaum, director of programing at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford, says it is likely there will be “fewer and fewer theaters out there in the state.”
The theaters that survive will have to compete with an increasingly wide array of at-home streaming options. But this is an area where Birnbaum says independent cinema has an advantage because independent films have been released direct to streaming for a while now, although the trend is just now catching on with bigger-budget productions. “This is something that we’ve had to coexist with as independent theaters for well over a decade now,” Birnbaum says.
The Avon theater is surviving thanks to its robust membership program and donations, but Birnbaum says they can use all the support they can get. He urges those comfortable enough to see a film to come out, and asks those who remain hesitant, to consider making a donation, becoming a member, or buying a gift certificate. No matter what, he says, “please continue to support your local cinema.”
All movie theaters had to make big changes to comply with health requirements. But the biggest changes of all might be at Mystic Luxury Cinemas at Olde Mistick Village, which had been planning renovations even before the pandemic. With an expected reopening in July, the theater has the following upgrades: the rows of red seats have been replaced with luxury electric recliners that offer tables and heating and are spaced farther apart; new sound systems in all four auditoriums; new flooring for electrical wiring; and a new online reservation system to make ticketing safer and more convenient.