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Sunday, May 24, 2020

We need independent theaters to survive the pandemic

The Pickford Film Center has suspended business and showings until further notice. These signs, pictured on April 18, are posted around the Pickford building explaining the situation and encouraging social distancing. // Photo by Thomas Hughes

Theaters like the Pickford serve as a place for our community to come together, and there may not be that many left after we’re done “staying at home


By Payton Gift

For many film buffs, sheltering in place can seem like the perfect time to binge watch. Yes, we all have to stay inside, but there’s also no one stopping us from watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” for the third time in a row. Although with theaters shut down, are we missing out on the entire viewing experience? 

Bill Campbell, the chairman of the Independent Cinema Alliance, said that when we watch a film together it heightens our experience. 

“It all comes down to the communal experience,” Campbell said. “The laughs are louder, the scares are scarier and the suspense is more intense.” 

When watching movies at home, it can be easy to get distracted. Whether it’s too many texts from your mom in one day, your roommate blasting music, or just general anxiety that you have something more important you could be doing, kicking back and watching a movie at home can be harder than it sounds. 

“Going to the movies is actually a commitment,” Campbell said. “You’re committed to escaping reality for two hours.” 

Campbell said that while local theaters may be completely shut down, there are still ways to give your support. Donating or buying gift cards can help, and some theaters are selling curbside concessions to keep business going. 

Mikayla Nicholson, an education outreach manager at the Pickford Film Center, said that the executive director, Susie Purves, decided to close the physical operations of the Pickford on March 16. Before the closure, due to COVID-19, the center was gearing up for multiple events including the Bellingham Music Film Festival, which has since moved online. 

Nicholson said that the film center stands out from other theaters for its array of films that often don’t get screen time in corporate theaters and for its education outreach. Before the closure, volunteers were working on a media literacy program. During the program, students from Whatcom County middle schools could watch a film for free with an educator teaching them about film and cinema literacy, according to Nicholson. Learning cinema literacy helps kids examine story-telling through film.

“I think what makes independent theaters special is how people-driven they are,” Nicholson said. “There is room to be creative with film choices and events, and at the end of the day, I just enjoy watching a diverse, challenging and joyful selection of independent films with other people. It’s one of the things I miss the most about the way things used to be.”

Ryan Uhlhorn, the operations manager of the film center, said that the decision to close before Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order was simply because they thought it was the right thing to do. The center was also already seeing a drop in attendance due to fears of COVID-19. Before the outbreak, the center was seeing a higher rate of attendance than usual. 

“Independent theaters, we call them ‘art house theaters,’ are an important source of non-commercial film, which offers a much broader viewpoint to the community,” Uhlhorn said. “Programming only commercially viable and popular films does not justly represent our society. We pick content for its quality and purpose and not the dollar signs it represents.”

Thanks to theaters like the Pickford, people can go see films that may not have gotten mainstream attention but are worth seeing nonetheless. It’s up to their supporters to make sure that they’re still here when it’s over. 

Thanks to work by the executive director and board of the Pickford, staff members are still able to receive payment, Uhlhorn said He also said they applied for a federal loan so that they can continue to pay their staff for as long as possible. 

If you’re interested in helping your local theater, Nicholson said there are a number of ways. You can donate, buy a membership or stream new releases on the Pickford’s website. And finally,  get out there and support them once their doors reopen. 


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