The temporary closing of the Naro Cinema on March 20th of this year marked the beginning of a long period of anticipation for the extended Naro family. We originally planned for a July 4th weekend reopening with showings of the Spielberg classic ‘Jaws’ as a fun and fearful allegory of our current viral predator. But that goal quietly faded away as we came to realize we are subject to the timetable of the coronavirus. As it lies patiently in waiting, we must wait too.

But this prolonged scenario of sitting in limbo grows ever more surreal as the elusive promise of reopening continues to recede into the unknown future. Looking back in fond memory over our many years together, our devoted audience and dedicated staff yearns for that golden time when we were able to socialize freely and appreciate each other’s smile.

We have had to say good-bye to the days of such live events and film series as Mal Vincent’s Summer Classics and FlickIt! Fridays and New Non-Fiction Film and FirstLook Film Forum. Whenever the Naro does reopen, we will have to keep it simple, and program a limited schedule of film showings as we bide our time until the pandemic mitigates. 

In looking to reopen, the Naro shares similar concerns as live concert producers and performing arts companies that stage indoor events with audience seating placed in close proximity. All of these arts and music companies are now looking out toward sometime next year for possible reopening dates. How will these non-profit arts groups be able to weather such prolonged closings without any revenue? How will their staffs and talent be able to sustain an income without the necessary funding of the arts?

The opening of movie theaters was to provide the test model for the subsequent reopening of live indoor events such as Broadway theater, live concerts, and the scheduling of events for the Virginia Arts Festival. But in order for movie theaters to successfully reopen, there must be the availability of high-profile films, and the big Hollywood film releases as well as the bigger independent art films have been repeatedly kicked back from their initial opening dates and rescheduled for late summer, fall, or into next year. It’s the proverbial chicken or the egg scenario. Nothing will happen until there are enough active theaters in all the big markets, especially in New York and L.A. that will make it worthwhile for the major distributors to open their films.

But theaters can’t reopen without widespread confidence by the public in the act of safely sitting in a darkened theater for two hours. Many people, especially older boomers, still don’t feel safe returning to populated indoor spaces. In recent polls by the Hollywood Reporter, only around a third of Americans say they would be willing to return to theaters this year. Those numbers could go up as information about health and safety practices are made available. Public trust should increase as businesses provide more info about air circulation and particle filtration for airborne transmission of aerosols that can linger in the air.

As of publishing time, the only local theater now in operation is the Commodore in downtown Portsmouth. Fred Schoenfeld’s 1945 restored single-screen showpiece opened early as a restaurant that shows movies. He admits that his theater attendance has been deficient, but that he’s limited to showing older film releases that are now available on home streaming services. Most of the large national chains have postponed their theater openings to later July or August, dependent upon the opening dates of Tenet and Disney’s Mulan that are now rescheduled for later August.

I am not good at making predictions about almost anything, and especially about the longer term repercussions of the pandemic. But many pundits have called this the end of movie theaters, and indeed it may be for many, especially some of the large corporate chains that are drowning under colossal debt and whose stock prices have tanked. In contrast, smaller independent theaters and art screens could be resurrected if landlords, creditors, and local governments can support and intervene on their behalf.

The one positive development for art screens during the pandemic has been the rapid rise of ‘virtual cinema’ that unexpectedly came together in the vacuum created by theater closings. Small specialty film distributors began an experiment to take the films that were originally designated for the big screen, and release them online in partnership with independent theaters. The Naro uses our email newsletter subscriber list to market the films and shares in a percentage of the rental revenue.

Unfortunately, the speed of conversion to virtual commerce by various distributors was not a coordinated effort and resulted in a confusing hodgepodge of platforms and technical instructions to view the films. Tech support is available but since the Naro is not the provider and only the host of the virtual cinema program, instructions must come directly from the distributor for each film. The online viewership has been expectedly much smaller than the revenue generated by the theater boxoffice.

Nevertheless, this new business model has been encouraging enough to garner the interest of a number of film industry types to strategize a comprehensive and simplified home experience for viewers that would be distinct from the established streaming services and VOD rental platforms. This planned online art house platform would be marketed and managed by theaters and would complement their big screen cinema programming.

So when will the time arrive for the reopening of the Naro? Although theaters can now operate under Virginia’s phase 3 plan with 50% attendance and social distancing, we are in no hurry and will gather knowledge from the initial openings of other theaters. In the meantime, we have been actively planning for that day, and our dedicated managers, Theresa and Atlanta, have used our down time to remodel and restore the theater, the lobby, the bathrooms, and the concession stand. They have been toiling hard, and the theater has never looked better. We’re committed to the future of film exhibition in Norfolk.We have benefitted from the generosity of two fund raising campaigns in the past, and we recognize our role as a community-supported theater.

But the overarching issue that will allow theaters and restaurants to safely reopen and to stay open without the threat of additional closings, has yet to be adequately addressed by the government. Until there is easily available testing and contact tracing that provides accessible information about cluster outbreaks, our social behavior will be shaped by hearsay, rumors, and fear. The lack of a coordinated pandemic response at the federal level means that each state must implement its own program. The result is a very mixed bag.

I’ve experienced first-hand these concerns after dining at a recently-opened local high-end restaurant. A few days later, upon hearing that they had closed back down right before the 4th of July weekend for a thorough deep cleaning, I learned through friends that a staff member had tested positive, instigating the shutdown. I was not able to gain crucial information from multiple attempts to contact the business or the Va Beach Department of Health.

It is only natural for businesses during these fearful times to try to protect their reputations and guard against negative information from circulating. But transparency is essential in our attempts to stop the spread of the virus. Where can one gather accurate information if the state still won’t release data on COVID-19 outbreaks at such breeding hot spots as chicken processing plants? It’s been more than two months since Virginia announced its plan to employ some 1,300 contact tracers to help contain new COVID-19 cases but state officials still have not released the ongoing results of the multi-million dollar program. The Virginia-Pilot has submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request with the state to obtain the data showing the effectiveness of the program’s contact tracing efforts.

We have been left to try to figure out much of this on our own. Is the virus starting to really escalate in our locality or are things under control? Confronted with all the contradictory advice dispensed by politicians, health leaders, and the corporate media, it’s no wonder that so many people are reaching so many different conclusions. Should we wear a mask in outdoor public spaces or not? And how about wearing masks inside in restaurants and in theaters? The data received from the early openings in other states suggests that it’s not safe to be in close proximity with crowds not wearing masks. And without people following the safety guidelines, restaurants and pubs and theaters could easily turn into hot spots.

Refitting the Naro lobby for the age of COVID

Small businesses are being placed in an impossible position, stuck between the financial imperative to reopen when federal unemployment insurance runs out at the end of July, and the prospect of placing their workers at risk if they return to the workplace prematurely. Their staff must take on the extra burden of maintaining best health practices and of regulating the appropriate behavior of their customers. Everyone must be very careful. Many businesses are teetering on the financial edge, and the possibility of being closed down again due to an outbreak would send them over the cliff.

Virus barriers go up at the Naro

At the end of the day, each business owner must make their own economic decision about when to reopen. Would they suffer greater losses from continuing to remain closed or by going ahead and reopening into a diminished business climate that has been restricted by the pandemic? There are some forecasts projecting that upwards of 40% of small businesses will either not reopen or have to call it quits over the next year. That’s millions of Americans thrown out of work and desperately in need of a new stimulus plan.

In Samuel Becket’s acclaimed play ‘Waiting For Godot’, the two protagonists converse and pontificate philosophically while they are waiting for the elusive Godot to show up. In the end, Godot never arrives. Let us hope that cinema fans awaiting the reopening of the movie business don’t experience a similar fate.