North Bend Theatre powers through the pandemic

Staff at the historic theater are finding new ways to connect to audiences as they prepare to reopen

On a sunny weekday afternoon, Beth Burrows and Skyler Possert sat inside the lobby of the North Bend Theatre. They wore masks as the theater’s dog, Maezi, wandered here and there, at home in the historic building.

In its 79 years of business, the theater has survived a world war and the Great Recession. Now it’s weathering the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s always been here as a gathering spot, a comfort, a touchstone for our community,” Burrows said.

The last movie to light up the theater’s screen was Disney’s Onward in mid-March. The theater, along with others across Washington, was temporarily shuttered by state authorities as they try to bring the coronavirus under control.

But the staff has kept busy during the closure. They painted the lobby, and are working on ensuring social distancing guidelines will be followed when they reopen. In a major change, they’re also planning on taking and delivering concessions orders from customers’ seats.

After the theater was closed, Burrows said they pivoted to providing take-out concessions in the evening, which has allowed her to retain employees. She hopes to be open ahead of the Aug. 21 release date for Mulan. If the theater is open before then, they plan on playing movies that have already been released.

Theater manager Skyler Possert said they’ve been showing movies online in partnership with indie film distributors, including Magnolia Pictures, Distrib Films and the North Bend Film Festival. The festival in particular has been sending them a new movie once a month, often one that hasn’t been heavily screened.

They’ve had a good response from the community to the online cinema. It’s done so well that even after the theater reopens, they plan on continuing the program.

“People have been really great in supporting us through the pandemic,” Possert said.

Aside from a handful of movies that have been released on streaming services, most major studio pictures had their release dates pushed back. Looking forward, Burrows is excited for Mulan, Wonderwoman 1984 and No Time to Die, among others.

Summer is usually blockbuster season, but this summer has been a quiet one. As a result, Possert said he expects fall and winter to see blockbuster ticket volumes.

And an off-summer blockbuster season has precedent.

The modern summer movie season, complete with slick CGI and big-name actors, originated with the 1975 release of Jaws. The Steven Spielberg film released in June 1975, which the AV Club describes as, until then, a sleepy month for movies.

Laura Martin of Needham & Company, an investment management company with experience in the film industry, also sees an off-summer blockbuster season as a possibility. As the pandemic runs it’s course, production companies are waiting “for people to feel better about getting together.”

In the short term, Martin is expecting fewer films to be made. And those that do get made will likely be distributed through a mix of direct streaming services and theatrical releases. Unions and production companies will have to decide how and when to resume filming.

The Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists released a document in June, outlining safety measures for its members returning to work. Requirements include screenings for active COVID-19 infections throughout production, and restricting movement on set.

“Through the dedication of everyone involved, we are all that much closer to being able to get back to telling stories together,” said Directors Guild of America President Thomas Schlamme in a statement.

But regardless of what’s happening in Hollywood, Burrows is excited about the future of the North Bend Theatre. There’s been an outpouring of community support throughout the pandemic, and the theater is a sponsor of the July 23 drive-in movie night at Meadowbrook Farm.

“We’re just excited, and looking forward to seeing our friends and family at the theater again,” Burrows said.

Beth Burrows, owner of the North Bend Theatre, stands outside the facility with manager Skyler Possert. They’re hoping to reopen the theater ahead of the Aug. 21 release of Mulan. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo

Beth Burrows, owner of the North Bend Theatre, stands outside the facility with manager Skyler Possert. They’re hoping to reopen the theater ahead of the Aug. 21 release of Mulan. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo