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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Open (Art) House

Salt Lake Film Society returns to in-person service after an innovative digital pivot.ake Film Society's Tower Theatre


  • Purple Moss Interior Design Photography

By the time the Salt Lake Film Society's two Salt Lake City art-house venues reopen—the Broadway Centre Cinemas on Oct. 22, and the Tower Theatre at a later date due to construction delays—they will have been closed for more than 19 consecutive months. Even for a not-for-profit enterprise, that would seem like a sure recipe for going away forever. But according to executive director Tori Baker, a quick and innovative pivot is both the reason they've survived, and one of the main reasons they waited so long to reopen their doors.

At the time of initial shutdown in March 2020, Baker recalls, the expectations were generally for a relatively brief interruption before resuming operations. "Everybody was talking about one or two weeks [of closure]," Baker says. "I called up our booker, and I said, five or six weeks [for Salt Lake Film Society], something like that. She thought I was crazy.

"In my operational mind, I was thinking, 'I can't do anything with one or two weeks; that's just lost time. I need enough time where my team can be reallocated to do something productive within that six weeks.'"

The first question Baker realized they had to answer was what problem it was that they were trying to solve with any innovation they came up with—and it was not the problem that the rest of the industry seemed to believe it was. "Unfortunately for many around the art house world, people were reading the problem as, 'Could people watch a movie,'" Baker says. "But streaming services were already solving that problem. We were solving the problem of donor and patron engagement, so they knew we were coming back, and fundraising, so we could be solid while we were closed."

At the time, art-house distributor Kino Lorber had already begun an online streaming network that allowed many art-house cinemas around the nation to piggyback, providing films that at-home viewers could purchase and Kino Lorber would reimburse the theaters. Baker was looking for an online model that would mimic the theatrical model on a digital rather than a physical screen, and would allow the viewers to be Salt Lake Film Society's own customers, rather than Kino Lorber customers; "That was the road I saw as handing away your donors and patrons to another organization," she says. Within a few weeks of shutdown, a project spearheaded by SLFS's Miles Romney became At-Home Arts, a digital platform not only for SLFS's own virtual cinema, but licensed out to 34 other art-house cinemas around the country.

The key component of that platform was not the ticket sales for movies themselves, which Baker says have been between only around 10% of what physical theater ticket sales typically were pre-COVID. "It allows us to make an 'ask,'" Baker says. "Our mission was still very active. How we really survived was through the fund-raising that initiated."

While the shift to At-Home Arts was crucial in keeping SLFS viable, it's also part of the reason the organization decided to delay in reopening the venues while other theater chains moved back towards normal operations earlier in the year. While it's also the case that art houses in general are slower in the summer, when blockbuster releases are more prevalent, and ramp up again during the "prestige movie" fall season leading up to awards announcements, turning the ship back towards physical presentation required a bit more time than the initial shift did.

"It costs to reopen," Baker says. "It costs to hire, to invest in the facility in a way that doesn't make it feel like you've transported to 1940. And we were doing At-Home Arts with 34 cinemas. The pivot wasn't insignificant from a human capital standpoint. That pivot takes time. For profit theaters didn't have to worry about that; they just shuttered, and waited to reopen with movies."

That wait time has allowed Salt Lake Film Society to engage in some renovations to both of the facilities, and prepare for implementing the "Cinema-Safe" COVID safety program initiated by the National Association of Theater Owners. And according to Baker, the reopening week will highlight the kind of programming that separates SLFS from traditional for-profit theaters, like playing not just the new film version of Dune, but also the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune concurrently, with the David Lynch 1984 version of Dune currently scheduled to open Oct. 29..

As for the question of whether audiences are primed to return to theatrical movie-going—particularly the audience for art-house films, which tends to be older—Baker believes that rumors of the theatrical experience's death are greatly exaggerated. "The 'theaters are dying' story happens all the time ... whether it's TV, or VHS, or streaming. What people are missing, and will never stop needing, is ... that moment, particularly in a technological age, where it demands your focus in that communal setting, in a way it doesn't when you see it on your laptop or your TV. There's something palpable about being in the same room with people, feeling the same thing. That's irreplaceable."

Renovations still underway for the Salt Lake Film Society's Tower Theatre