We’ve heard countless times about multiplex corporations such as AMC and Cinemark/Regal Cinemas struggling to keep their assets in order amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. And while we should keep watch over how the theater industry returns to normalcy; we’d be remiss not to take a look at what independent theaters are accomplishing during their closure.
With that in mind, I contacted Brendan Joyce, the Associate Programmer for Ambler Theater, a Montgomery County landmark, and asked him to share about the long-lasting history of Ambler Theater, how they’ve engaged their community before and after Governor Wolf’s shutdown, and how people can support Ambler Theater directly.
And, in case you haven’t heard, Ambler Theater has recently unveiled the Outdoor Summer Series, a safe, social distanced, movie screening alternative if you’re looking to get out the house sometime.
Ambler Theater has been around since 1928. There’s a lot of history here!
December 31st, 1928 was the day it opened. It was originally a theater house owned by Warner Brothers. And, back in the 1920s and 30s, studios owned theaters across the United States, so Warner Brothers owned the Ambler Theater. The first movie that was screened was Our Dancing Daughters with Joan Crawford.
The architecture of the Ambler Theater was designed as a Spanish Colonial style. It was only one theater, so if you’ve been to the Ambler, our biggest theater is designed to mimic that. But the theater stretched out all the way past our concession stand and sat 1,228 seats. It was big! It also had a pipe organ!
It ran as a Movie theater under Warner Brothers ownership for a while. And then with the advent of television and the multiplex, it fell out of ownership in 1969-1970. Another group came in and owned the theater from 1970 to 1997, and they were running mainly 16mm film.
Then Renew Theaters bought the property in 2001. At that time, the previous owners were building two new theaters – which are the black-box style Regal stadium seated theaters that we have – and we reopened those in 2003 while working on the big auditorium – theater 1 – which was restored and reopened in 2007.
Would you say that, typically, a big part of Ambler Theater is your community involvement?
Yeah, I would say that! I feel like when people arrive to Ambler or drive down Butler, one of the biggest things, one of the first things they see is that neon tower and neon sign. And we’re situated right at the heart of Ambler.
I tell people that, in a post-COVID world, my biggest hope for the Ambler Theater is that people can go out and go to a dinner at one of our great local restaurants in town, or shop in town, because there’s so much to do in Ambler. And then you can either cap it off or start it with a movie at our theater. So, we try and create a big sense of “This is our small town, our home town, come out to this theater and enjoy what’s along Ambler and Butler, shop and eat, and see a movie!”
But also, there are other things we try and promote, like we try and promote local and area filmmakers which I’ve always been very passionate about. Because, in college, when I was just starting out – I was in film school at Montgomery County Community College – when I was there, I started out as a film maker. And some of my first films – which was really cool – when we made a big film you could show it at the Ambler Theater. The Ambler was so inviting and helpful and encouraging to allow student filmmakers to show their films on the big screen which is something you’re not going to get at a Regal or AMC.
And also educating people within the community about film. We have programs such as Film 101 where we bring out professors from Temple University and film critics from Philadelphia to talk about their favorite films and educate our movie goers on things they probably wouldn’t have realized.
As an employee of Ambler Theater, what was running through your head in March hearing that COVID-19, this virus that felt so far away, was now affecting your livelihood?
It was interesting. Especially that day. There was just so much up in the air. Like everybody, you have an idea of what’s going on in the world and the virus just by watching the news, following the cases, and I believe in late February there was a something in our office, our little group, was talking about if this was a thing.
And, you never think its gonna happen. You never think the worst is going to happen. And then you get to this point on March 12th, and I think it was an update on my phone, but Governor Wolf was talking about shutting down businesses like movie theaters. So then, like, is this going to last a few days? Is this going to last a week?
And especially early on, at the beginning of the day, you’re thinking, “It’s probably going to be a week to two weeks.” And then, hopefully, you can come back and jumpstart whatever programs you were working on.
We had a few programs in the works like our 2020 Vision series which was focusing on sight and cinematography. Then our Retrograde series, our second year of it, that we were going to start on March 19th. We were hoping, “Okay, if this happens, we’ll be out for two weeks and then reschedule and reshuffle things around.”
To think we’re now in July is mind-blowing.
Big theater chains like AMC have started providing movies through an On-Demand service. Has Ambler Theater also embraced the streaming world to help provide quality films to their patrons?
Yes! So, when we ended up closing our theater, we went a week or two trying to figure out how to get films and provide a virtual theater. And in that time, between closing down and starting the virtual cinema, it all feels like a crazy blur just because there was so much going on. I remember we went a week or so without any films and a lot of questions were, “What are the next steps?”
Eventually, we had a few independent distributors reach out to us. They ended up saying, “Hey, we have some films that you would play for a limited engagement or for a short time in your theater, or you might not be able to get in your theater, and we want to put them out there on a virtual platform.”
I give a lot of credit to those independent distributors who are jumping on this quick and making these films available to us. We started out with a few films, maybe 3 or 4, and now we’re up to about 15 films in total!
We have smaller distributors like Grasshopper Films that were there from the beginning. Now we have distributors like Neon, which just won the Oscar for Parasite this past year, and Magnolia that have jumped on this bandwagon and are making these films available to us.
The great thing is its supporting independent cinema and supporting independent theaters because most of these tickets are $12, and these profits are split fifty-fifty. They’re making $6 and we’re making $6. And overall, it’s probably not a lot because some people might not be searching for these films, and it’s not like going to the theater, but we are making strides and it does help support us and those films, as well as get them out in front of people who typically won’t see them.
We also started doing some of our special events. Like I said, we had Retrograde, which we were going to start, and we ended up converting that to virtual platform through Netflix and Amazon Prime. We also had our First Take Local Film Showcase which was going to be a few weeks after the shutdown, after the announcement. So, we had a bunch of local filmmakers who were looking forward to their films being on the big screen. We were going, “Okay, what are we going to do?”
My feeling was we could keep putting it off or we could do some sort of livestream, promote it to our members, and make it as special as possible with Q&A’s and a bunch of other creative things that make it as special for these filmmakers.
I feel like that was one of my favorite accomplishments post-COVID with this virtual cinema, getting their voices out there to the broader audience. It’s been a juggling act! Very different!
Can you tell us about how you converted the Retrograde series into the ‘Retrograde Virtual Watch Party’? Because I think it’s brilliant. You gotta tell people about this!
So, the Retrograde Virtual Watch Party is a spinoff of Retrograde. We started Retrograde last year. It was an 8-film series where we partnered with Forest and Main Brewing Company. People could buy a ticket and if they do an upcharge would get a free specially made poster by a local artist, as well as a voucher to attend an after-party which included karaoke, trivia; it depends on the film! It ran from March to October, a mix of digital and 35mm presentation.
So, us going into a second season, we wanted to make it bigger and better! And then with COVID showing up, oh wow… it was a big bummer.
But, there are so many great cult classic films on Netflix and Amazon Prime, so we were like, “Hey, let’s try some new things!” So, our Creative Director, KC Biedlingmaier, mentioned doing something in Discord, the chat app, as a way to communicate with people, hold trivia and other activities throughout the film.
When we set up the Discord chat room, we put a vote out to people for what movie we’d start with and GoldenEye was the winner. Massively! It was a landslide!
We were doing it every Saturday, it kept catching on and depending on the film new people would show up. There’s an interest there. We had some people show up for Clueless and then they’re like, “Oh, Raiders of the Lost Ark! I haven’t seen that in a while. I’ll stick around and watch it next week!” We’re cultivating a big audience. I think our Discord chatroom is a little over 200 people.
For me, the cool thing is you’re still able to communicate on a weekly basis with your audience and have them do fun things such as trivia. The things that if you were to shut down completely, they wouldn’t be able to watch these cool films, participate in trivia, communicate with our theater. Giving people the opportunity to do this over such a long period of time has been really cool.
And at the end of the day, this will benefit Ambler Theater because eventually when we reopen, and things are good to go in a post-COVID world, and we do Retrograde within the theater, we’re going to have a built in audience that may be bigger than before.
During this time, what are the best ways to support Ambler Theater?
The biggest and best way is to sign up for a membership. That might sound completely crazy, as the perks that come with the membership are member-only events, reduced ticket prices, but if you sign up for a membership, it won’t kick-in until Ambler Theater reopens.
You can sign up for a membership now and in a few months it’ll start. Let’s ballpark it: if we reopen March 2021, and you sign up today. The membership will kick-in March 2021 and will be good until March 2022. Memberships have helped us a lot and has really helped to keep the theater running.
But also, supporting our virtual cinema events. Like I said, we have between 14-15 great films on our virtual theater, half the proceeds go to us. Even supporting our free events such as Retrograde Virtual Watch Party, First Take Local Film Showcase or our Hollywood Streaming Nights.
And, of course, the Outdoor Summer Series will go a long way!
This interview has been edited and condensed, retains the same information, and can be heard in its entirety in the latest episode of Monthly Movie News, a recurrent segment on the Cinematic Doctrine podcast featured above.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Executive Editor, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!