COVID-19 has forced independent theaters and festivals like Sidewalk to adapt

It’s hard for me to imagine Birmingham without the Alabama Theatre. We’ve been watching movies there every Christmas since I was a child. It’s where my wife and I got married. I pass by its blinking marquee on my walk from my office to the coffee shop. We hosted Reckon’s first gubernatorial debate at its sister theatre, The Lyric, across the street.

But last year, like so many businesses across the country, there were fears that it may close for good. Theaters and concert halls were one of the first things to close during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the last things to reopen.

This week Birmingham will host the 23rd Annual Sidewalk Film Festival in its downtown theatre district. It should’ve been a moment of joy and reunion after the 22nd festival was forced to be held at a nearby drive-in. Instead, the rise of the delta variant and the growing crowd of patients at local hospitals has cast a shadow over the event.

It’s festival season in the South. And with fewer government resources for closed businesses, nonprofit directors and business owners are navigating how to hold safe events or whether to cancel events and risk the chance that they may never return.

This week, I spoke with Chloe Cook, Executive Director of Sidewalk Film, about how they’re preparing to host the festival as safely as possible. After we spoke, Sidewalk announced they’ll require vaccination or a negative test to attend. Masks will be required and they’re partnering with Birmingham AIDs Outreach to offer free vaccinations on site at the festival.

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The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Last year, y’all took an innovative approach because of COVID times and did a drive-in Sidewalk Film Festival? What kinds of precautions are you taking this go round because of delta?

Chloe Cook: Sure. Well, when we made the commitment to return to the theater district, the community was in a different place than it’s in today. I can’t predict what choice we would have made, if we had known that this was going to be where we were in terms of COVID and the Delta variant. But we are moving forward as responsibly as we can with this year’s festival.

And so what that means for us this year is a couple of different things. One is that we are limiting all of our venues to a 50% capacity to provide as much space as possible within those venues for social distancing measures. To even further accommodate that on opening night, we are not only renting the Alabama Theatre—which is where we’ve customarily held that event—but we’re also renting the Lyric Theatre. Same film, same show, just in two different rooms. There’ll be about a 15-minute delay between the two, just to give our staff the opportunity to move from one to the other and say the welcoming remarks etc. So that’s again, a social distance measure that we’re putting in place.

We are asking all staff, volunteers and attendees of all kinds. Media, filmmakers, regular audience members, etc, to wear masks anytime they’re indoors. It isn’t our expectation that somebody wear a mask while they’re walking from the Alabama Theatre to Boutwell Auditorium. But when they get to Boutwell, they should have their mask on when they enter the door. And to keep that on when they’re inside the venue.

Different venues have different policies at this time about food and drink inside their spaces. And so we have to honor their individual policies. The places that are selling concessions, etc, obviously know that people are going to take the mask down while they’re eating or drinking. And the expectation is obviously they put it back over their nose and mouth. You know, just like anybody else, we don’t have a great way to walk around the venue and police that during the film. But that is the communicated expectation.

We’ll have free masks, if somebody is at the door and they don’t have a mask, we’ll have one for them. If people want to upgrade their mask over the weekend, they can do that in our merch shop. We’ll have really high-quality branded masks for people to buy if they want. We’re providing all of our staff and volunteers at all levels with Sidewalk branded higher quality masks to make that a little bit more pleasant for them to wear over the multi day event. Not the same mask, but masks in general, at the multi day event.

And then we’ll be partnering with Birmingham Aids Outreach at the festival. They’ll be on site doing COVID vaccinations there, also completely free of charge. And then we are partnering with the Jefferson County Health Department. They’ve provided us with some PSAs that we’re running currently in the cinema. But we will run throughout festival weekend about the importance of wearing a mask and getting your vaccines, we’ll be doing that in partnership with them.

And then we are hosting a screening of the 2011 film, “Contagion.” And we’ve partnered with the UAB School of Public Health and the health department to do sort of a fact or fiction, Mythbusters-style conversation after that screening, meant to be entertaining but also informative.

And then within our own facility. We did a bunch of updates here before we reopened the doors in September. And so, obviously, those updates are still in place at the Sidewalk Cinema. And that includes about a $12,000 or $14,000 upgrade to our HVAC system that includes UV filters on all of our units inside the building. Then we upgraded to the MERV 13 filters that are the recommended filters for all modern HVAC systems now, in response to COVID and other aerosol transmission viruses.

And then we went through and installed all touchless fixtures in the restrooms and those kinds of things just to make the experience as touch free as possible. So that’s all still in place here. Different venues have made different updates to their facilities, but that’s what we’ve done here in our own space.

Reckon: Were you tempting fate by scheduling “Contagion?”

Cook: I mean, I hope not. You know, we did have a conversation about it.

When we first talked about doing that, it was really an idea that we had had for the cinema space pre-COVID. One of the things we were going to roll out in 2020 in the cinema, was a myth busters series where we were going to screen these films that highlight certain professions. So, like a movie about journalism, or a movie about the medical field or about lawyers or whatever, and then have people that represent that industry actually come in and say, “that would actually never fly in a courtroom. Here’s what would really happen.” Or, “journalism isn’t that intense all the time,” Or, you know, whatever the things are that are maybe amped up in some ways. And then also to point out like, “yeah, that ‘working at two o’clock in the morning thing’ is pretty real. And that’s been my experience.” Or whatever.

So, we talked about introducing a version of that at this year’s festival. I mean, for obvious reasons, “Contagion” is one of the films that came to mind. We approached the (UAB) School of Public Health about it, and they were interested in participating.

I can’t say this with authority. It’s just my opinion, based on sort of anecdotal evidence, but I think a huge majority of the Sidewalk audience is very conscientious about the virus and have educated themselves about it to the best of their abilities. And I say that just based on our experience of running the cinema. Over the past almost-year now, in COVID times, we’ve seen very little at our doors in terms of, “I’m not putting this mask on,” or, “you can’t make me do that.” I mean, most everybody’s just arrived with the mask. And we just haven’t had any trouble.

We very briefly dropped our mask policy. And then, of course, you know, brought it right back. So, I’m thinking that we are going to have our really respectful audience, just because we’ve seen that on a smaller scale here in the cinema.

With that in mind, I hope we’re not testing fate too much with the screening of “Contagion,” because we’ve got all the measures in place that we can have in place and still move on with the event. I mean, obviously, there are things that you could do that would be more responsible, I suppose, in terms of COVID-response, like not having the event at all. But that isn’t a viable option for us as an organization this time, so we’re trying to move forward as best as we can, in the current circumstances.

Reckon: It’s obviously been a very tough year for the movie industry basically at every level, but certainly independent cinemas like Sidewalk. Y’all basically had just opened and then the pandemic hit. You talked about updating your system, but what has the last year been like? And how have y’all kept your head above water?

Cook: I will try to give a summary response.

We were one of the first organizations in the state to close our doors in response to COVID, ahead of any regulations or mandates, at any level. We made that decision based on what we were seeing happen in some of our sister cinemas and film festivals in other parts of the country. And we just got concerned that we were so new, and we were still trying to get our sea legs as a seven day a week organization that if — speaking of tempting fate — that if we were to ignore what we were seeing in the news and keep our doors open, and somehow somebody on our staff had contracted the virus and we passed it along—not only to everybody on our team, but to customers that was traced back to us, which at that time, there was a lot of talk about contact tracing and how important that was going to be—we just didn’t think we could rebound from that. If we had been sort of the hub of the virus in our community. And we also didn’t think that somehow Birmingham was gonna get to skip this experience when we were watching what was happening in Portland and Seattle, etc, at the time.

So we closed. And, frankly, I felt like I might be the laughingstock of the community for overreacting. And then, you know, within a week or so, it was like, “wow, everything is closing.” And what does this mean for not just us as a small arts nonprofit, but for everybody in the community? Schoolchildren and teachers and journalists, and every single profession was being impacted almost simultaneously, in one way or another. And so, when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be some two-week overreaction on my part, our team just rallied pretty immediately to try to figure out what we could offer in a virtual space.

So within about a week to 10 days, we rolled out virtual and education outreach programs, we rolled out a Sidewalk home video program. When we felt we had enough information to decide that this was a safe enough idea, and we had sort of all the appropriate permissions from the health department and ABC, we rolled out curbside concessions programs so that people could order online and come by on Friday afternoon and pick up hot popcorn and movie theater candy and fountain drinks if that was their thing. And we would bring it to their car window and send them home to watch Netflix or whatever they were doing.

And so we tried to just get creative and adapt really quickly. We almost immediately began talking about hosting a pop-up drive-in series. We did a couple downtown. We did, I think six, or eight up at the Summit [shopping center] last summer. And then in the early days we were debating about what would happen for last year’s festival. Would we be able to come downtown but with limited capacity? Or would we have to be a hybrid of drive-in and some internal venues?  Would we need to be all virtual?

And then we were also talking about the possibility of going to Leeds and the guys that own the drive-in there had temporarily closed it to make some improvements to the facility. And they were trying to finish up their construction and get those improvements done. And they weren’t sure, last spring, if they were going to be able to get the work finished in time for us to use the space in August. So literally with a moment’s notice, we decided that we could pull the trigger on Leeds, and we just pushed everything there.

I’m really proud of what we did last year, but it wasn’t Sidewalk in the purest form by any stretch. I think it was a great point of light for people in the community who had missed out on just an opportunity to get out of the house and feel like they were doing that safely. We were proud of that piece. And as always, I thought our programming team did a phenomenal job of pulling together a really great and diverse lineup of films. So that was really a positive. It was not a money-making endeavor for us. But it was overall, something to be proud of and something I’m glad we did.

I think last year, the notion of the drive-in almost felt novel to some people like “oh, well, this will never happen again so we should participate in a drive-in.” And this spring, when we were trying to make our plans for the 2021 event, the vaccines were being rolled out and the case counts were dropping. And so we were like, “people are gonna think we’re nuts if we announced that we’re going back to the drive-in. All of this forward progress towards getting the virus under control.” And so we didn’t make the decision to do that. And now obviously, here we are dealing with delta variant.

But, I mean, it really changed our staff in some pretty dramatic ways. I think on an individual level, it gave everybody a different perspective on the work that we do. And, you know, it’s cheesy to say, I know, but when we were doing those pop up drive-ins—especially the first couple of ones that we hosted—we had people like leaving at the end rolling their windows down just a crack and saying, “thank you so much for doing this, it’s the first time I’ve left my house for anything in X number of months or weeks.”

And we had a family with a child who needs a wheelchair come to the drive-in a couple of weeks in a row. And they were just like, “This has been phenomenal. Our kid is immunocompromised, and they also have a mobility issue. And so we’re already somewhat limited and it’s been even more so.” It was just like an opportunity for them to get out the house. And I think we all felt good, in a way, that maybe we normally don’t think about that the festival provides an escape from real life for folks. And it was like really crystal clear last summer, when we were doing those drive-ins and at the festival as well.

But it also meant everybody on our team, every single person last April, we took a 20% pay cut. And when I made the decision to do that, I was thinking, “well, by the time August (2020) rolls around, this will be under control, we’ll have the festival going and we just won’t be in the same position, and we’ll reinstate everybody’s pre-COVID pay and get back to normal.”

And I’m sad to say that that is not at all what happened. We just returned people’s rate of pay to their pre COVID rate at the first of August.

So everybody went a year and a half basically. And that’s certainly not a fun decision to make as the executive director for your team. It’s not a fun decision to make for yourself, for that matter.

And we were able to return people to that pre COVID rate of pay, not because we’re all of a sudden selling out every screening that we host here at the cinema or something. But we did secure a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. And we found out about that, I believe, the last week of July. And that is providing us with some amount of relief and part of the intention of those grant funds is to help organizations get back on their feet in a post-COVID world that we’re not really in right now. And so we’re allocating some of those funds to getting everybody’s pay back to those pre-COVID rates.

And now I’m hopeful that things don’t continue to get worse in our community and force us back into a situation where we can’t be open at all. But I think any small business owner or nonprofit executive director, or anybody that works for themselves in whatever capacity, you know, none of us have that magic crystal ball. I certainly don’t. And so I think over the past year, maybe the biggest takeaway is we’ve learned that we have to make the next right decision one decision at a time. And sometimes we’re making that decision with information that we have in the moment, and that information is going to change the next day. And when that happens, it’s not a reflection of us, as individuals or as a team, it’s a reflection of the circumstances that we’re all dealing with right now.

So I hope it’s made us a little bit more empathic and understanding with one another, and with other people.

Reckon: You talked about how it had changed the staff. It seems like, at least from my perspective, that it also affected the way that the community sees the importance of these venues. At one point in 2020, it seemed like a real possibility that we could lose the Alabama Theatre and we could lose Sidewalk, and possibly the Lyric, But what does it mean for a city like Birmingham to have a downtown movie theater and a theater district? It’s not something that is that common in Southern cities these days.

Cook: It’s really not that common in many cities that are our size, regardless of the region.

I think that what Birmingham has today as a theater district is a real jewel for our community. And it’s also a real opportunity for our community. If you think about the big cities that have a theater district that is thriving seven days a week—in a non-COVID world anyway—with all sorts of art forms being presented in that space. They’ve got live theater, and they have film, and they have live music. And, generally, there are lots of businesses surrounding those venues supporting that industry and all the people that help to sort of feed that industry, restaurants and bars and retail shops and all that.

It’s been the hope of mine for many years now, that if Sidewalk stuck it out in the Historic Theater district, that, one day, we would get to have our own space, which we do have now. And that we would see that community slowly but surely rally around those historic venues like the Alabama and the Lyric, which, for many years, people didn’t know even existed right there on that corner. And that the Carver Theatre on Fourth Avenue would be really seen as a part of the Theater District because it is very much. And I was excited to see a few weeks back that their renovations moved forward, and they will look to reopen early next year.

It’s super important. The Alabama and the Lyric are owned by the same nonprofit organization, so I do think last year both facilities were in jeopardy. And there’s no guarantee that they’re out of that jeopardy, just like there’s no guarantee for us. If case counts continue to increase, we don’t have a way right now of predicting how our city or county or state or nation will respond. And, you know, our industry, we had the longest standing mandates. You could be at a bar drinking or in a restaurant eating well before you could be in a movie theater watching the show or in a live music venue. And so our industry has suffered. And I think there would be a huge, huge void in Birmingham and in other communities, if we don’t really think carefully about how we want to address our industry as a whole, depending on how the pandemic continues to unfold in front of us.

I can’t imagine a Birmingham without the Alabama Theatre. It’s not my space. It’s not my venue. We rent it every year for the festival. And I love going to shows there and taking my daughter to the holiday movie series and all of that. To not have it be a huge loss. And to only recently raise the funds for the Lyric and to not have it be a thriving facility would be terrible.

Reckon: One last question for you. Do you have a favorite film that was either filmed in the South or set in the South? Or what’s a movie that you think gets the South right?

Cook: Wow, favorite movie set in the South? Gosh. Well, we screened a film at Sidewalk in 2009 or 2010. I can’t remember which, called “That Evening Sun,” that featured Hal Holbrook and his wife, Dixie Carter, amongst others. And it was just such a beautiful well done film. Not a happy ending film. But a beautiful and well done film. And it was so well done that we were considering it for opening night that year and just ultimately decided that nobody would want to go to a party afterwards. They would feel the need to go home and like call their parents or their grandparents or whatever. That’s probably one of my favorites from the Sidewalk universe that’s a narrative [film]. And it’s available to watch, I believe, on Amazon right now, maybe somewhere else.

I don’t know. I have fondness for lots of different films in the South, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and, you know, “Forrest Gump,” and all that stuff. It’s just fun to watch. And as a Southerner, it’s fun to watch those things sometimes and roll your eyes at what’s not quite right in those portrayals. But yeah, there are a lot of great movies that are set in the South that are about Southern people. And I think even more, there are some really beautiful documentaries that are set in the South and tell real stories about, you know, the places that we come from.

Learn the latest information about Sidewalk Film Fest or purchase tickets here

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