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SALT LAKE CITY — While theater operations across the United States faded to black amid COVID-19, art houses and cinephiles alike wondered when film exhibition would reenter the spotlight and audiences could return to their seats.
Salt Lake Film Society's Broadway cinema will return to in-person screenings on Oct. 22. The return signaled a turning point for the arts and cultural sector, which has been hard hit by the ongoing pandemic.
"We're really thinking that this is a big victory to reopen our door and to get people coming back to the movies with Salt Lake Film Society, cinephiles and people who love independent film, as well as our facilities for the arts community," Salt Lake Film Society President and CEO Tori Baker said.
The nonprofit has found ways to connect with its audience and keep the closely knit art house community together safely. Salt Lake Film Society launched its own online streaming platform, At-Home, creating a revenue stream for the operator and an avenue for independent filmmakers to exhibit their work. Salt Lake Film Society invited other art houses across the country to participate, helping preserve operations amid restrictions.
But not everyone participated in the digital sphere, Baker said. The reopening of the art house on Friday marks the reunification and preservation of the film community.
"Why a community would be interested in ensuring that they can have this fireside and communal experience in their community for decades to come — it's about the emotional and mental wellness of any participatory art form. It's the same reason that you go to the theater, the ballet or anything that allows you to have a humanities experience and to feel very human," Baker said.
"Everybody's going to be quiet at the same time and laughing at the same time and that human connection of feeling the emotion in the room that happens during the cinematic experience is really what we're all about," she said.
As the doors of the art house open and patrons fill seats, the economic impact in the surrounding community will reemerge, Baker said, pointing to the approximately 50,000 patrons that walk through the Tower Theatre's doors each year.
"The magic thing about the actual, literal coming together of human beings that happens at a cinema, is that there are other economic effects from that within the neighborhoods that they exist in. Since art houses are more intimately connected to their communities, they become an important part of that ecosystem," she said.
The cinematic return of Salt Lake Film Society's art houses has not been without conflict, however.
The nonprofit hoped to reopen its Tower Theatre along with Broadway but have run into roadblocks. The theater has undergone enhancements during its closure and supply chain issues have delayed a reopening date, Baker said.
Such supply chain issues have affected industries across the United States and the world. Analysts point to many reasons for the disruption, including worker shortages and a shortage of raw materials.
A record number of workers are also quitting jobs in what's been deemed the Great Resignation. Industries and companies are experiencing worker shortages and demands.
The film industry is no different, with 40,000 film and TV industry workers represented by a number of unions previously threatening to strike. The unions reached an agreement avoiding the strike and what would have likely been a significant disruption.
Local art houses are not immune to the industry's effects, Baker said.
"The industry is in turmoil right now and the ability to access a piece of art from a filmmaker might be different right now, due to the pandemic and that's because of the pivot to digital," Baker explained.
The platform that saved the art houses during the pandemic has created a unique challenge for them as independent artists turn to release their films digitally. Once a film is released directly on a digital platform it makes it inaccessible theatrically thereafter, she said.
"There's some industry things that are happening that are limiting the pipeline, so to speak, to the work and so curation has become more difficult in that sense," Baker added.
But she remains hopeful amid industry challenges.
"What an art house does in the community is, we are really the fireside of the modern era. Everybody has come together for eons as human beings to tell stories and one of the most wonderful ways to tell stories through the arts is this visual form of cinema," Baker said. "The original preservation of that big-screen experience and that fireside experience is what is important to keep present preserved in our community especially in our technological age."
For more information regarding tickets, showtimes, the film lineup and COVID-19 precautions, visit saltlakefilmsociety.org.