October 14, 2020

Pandemic is a Test of Survival For Garden and Montgomery Theaters

HOLDING ON: The Princeton Garden Theatre, shown in pre-pandemic times, is hoping to eventually reopen. Like Montgomery Cinemas in Skillman and others that specialize in offbeat as well as some standard features, the Nassau Street movie house is suffering the economic effects of COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Renew Theaters)

By Anne Levin

September 20, 2020 was supposed to be the culmination of the Princeton Garden Theatre’s 100th birthday celebration. But instead of marking the milestone, the Nassau Street movie house was quiet that day.

Suffering the effects of the pandemic, the Garden was closed to the public, as it has been since mid-March. COVID-19 has hit the movie industry especially hard. Though permitted to open as of last month, the Garden and the Montgomery Cinemas in Skillman, both of which offer offbeat, art-house films along with some carefully chosen mainstream fare, are hanging on and hoping to resume once the pandemic eases.

“We are planning to reopen. We are holding on, although money is tight,” said Chris Collier, executive director of Renew Theaters, which owns the Garden along with three others in Doylestown, Jenkintown, and Ambler, Pa. “We’ll be doing an end-of-year campaign. We’re a nonprofit, so we have loyal donors and supporters. I don’t know how for-profit theaters are handling it.”

Not well. Regal Cinemas, the huge commercial chain, recently announced plans to temporarily close all its theaters across the nation, including 11 in New Jersey, following a $1.6 billion loss due to the shutdown. With permission to be only 25 percent occupied and many production companies going straight to streaming services, the situation had become dire.

The six screens at Montgomery Cinemas on Route 206 have been blank since movie theaters were ordered to close seven months ago. Bob Piechota, manager and owner of the Montgomery and another theater in Hillsborough, said he isn’t sure if and when he will be able to reopen.

“I don’t know how we stand at this point,” he said. “As it stands now, there’s no product. The whole movie business in general is really bad right now. Major movies keep getting pushed back. We don’t play commercial movies; we play a lot of the offbeat. And the art movies were having problems already, because so much was going to streaming. It was so much cheaper to just sell them off to Netflix or Hulu or whatever, especially the small budget ones.”

President of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Theatre Owners, Piechota said he has been as preoccupied with the statewide situation as he is with his own. “It’s a tough time,” he said. “I think in New Jersey we’re probably up to 16 theaters that are closing up, and probably more.”

Keeping theaters closed for this long a period might make people afraid to attend once they reopen. “We’ve come out with CinemaSafe, which is a way to operate safely — you buy tickets online, and the computer knocks out seats in front, back, and next to you,” Piechota said. “We find safe ways to get around it, using partitions, doing a lot of cleaning, and everything else. But still, people are reluctant to go. That, plus a lack of available product, makes it hard.”

At Renew Theaters,
Collier and colleagues have been crunching the numbers to see how much longer the Garden can stay afloat. “We will need more support,” he said. “We were given the green light to do reduced seating in the beginning of September, but we realized we’d have to enforce social distancing. Then there is the fact that there is lack of new content out there. And the [Princeton] University has gone virtual, so the students aren’t coming. So we can’t see a scenario to reopen in 2020. If we opened now, we’d stand to lose three to four times more than if we stay closed.”

The Garden’s online programming during the pandemic, including its virtual “Film 101” series,  has gotten a positive response. The Princeton theater, in fact, has had the most virtual activity of Renew’s four houses. “But it’s not at all anywhere that we could compare to what our in-person operation would be,” said Collier.

A lot of the films the Garden would want to show have been pushed into 2021. “For the art market stuff, they are even fewer and further between,” Collier said. “A lot of the things that make the Garden what it is — classic films, discussions, educational programming — we really need a larger audience for. We want a packed house. We can’t, at the moment, find the financial balance that would allow us to open just yet.”

Renew has owned the Garden for five years, and Collier said the company is still getting the word out to those who are not familiar with the theater’s approach. “People who love film found us right away. But because it was a for-profit operation for so long, some might still not be aware of what we do,” he said. “We’re still trying to make people aware that we’re in line with things like the Arts Council of Princeton and McCarter Theatre.”

The Montgomery remains in flux. “It’s a tough time for the art product in general. This is kind of putting the nail in the coffin. But we’re going to hang in until December and see what happens,” Piechota said.

While the most endangered by the pandemic, the Garden has more public support than any of Renew’s other theaters. “The love for the Garden has been wonderful,” said Collier. “We’re paying close attention to what films are becoming available, what safety precautions will have to be taken, and guidance from the state. We’re also looking at our reserves and seeing how long we can make it,” said Collier. “As a nonprofit, we are stewards of the support and money our patrons have given us. We don’t want to rush into anything. We want to make sure our people are safe.”

As for that 100th anniversary, it hasn’t been forgotten. “This is not the way we wanted to spend it, but we are looking forward to celebrating number 101 when we reopen,” said Collier. “We’re going to make it and are looking forward to celebrating when we can.”