Local theaters in Albuquerque continue to scrape by as closure remains constant due to state safety mandates. Along with the continuous loss of employees, many local theaters are now relying on virtual operations and new sources of funding to prevent a permanent shutdown.

New Mexico is currently operating under a county-by-county tiered color-coding system that’s dependent on the amount of cases per 100,000 inhabitants, as designated by the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH). The levels are red, yellow, green and turquoise, each with varying levels of restrictions. Theaters, which are considered a large entertainment venue, may reopen with public audiences at a 25% capacity when counties hit the green level.

Bernalillo county is currently at the yellow level, which only allows theaters to operate without a physical audience at a 25% maximum capacity in order to record or broadcast, according to the NMDOH. Because of this, local theaters in Albuquerque, such as the Guild Cinema and the Albuquerque Little Theatre (ALT), have turned to online streaming as a solution.

“Fortunately we were situated so that we could keep producing even though we don’t have live audiences,” Henry Avery, executive and artistic director of the ALT, said.

However, not all audiences are satisfied with virtual theaters. Caitlin Kelly, a local actress, said part of this is because theater depends on physical community.

“It’s hard to differentiate yourself in a virtual way as a theater because there are only so many ways you can present theater virtually … One of the incredible things about theater in the first place is the connection between audiences and actors, and you lose a lot of that communication in a virtual setting,” Kelly said.

Avery said 85% of the ALT’s funding comes from ticket sales, so the business has turned to relying on funding from grants and patrons to continue operations.

“We’ve applied for everything that we could and we’ve been very fortunate in what we’ve been able to generate through the grants, through the donations. So we’re still there,” Avery said.

Keif Henley, the owner of the Guild Cinema, also said grants and patron donations have been extremely helpful in running the cinema.

“We’re limping along and we’re burning into our savings a little bit but we’re not in a danger zone thankfully,” Henley said. “But we can’t do this forever.”

However, there was so little money coming into the Guild Cinema that Henley had to lay off not only the other three employees that worked there, but also himself. He currently continues all virtual operations for the business without pay. Avery said the ALT’s cut down on their staff as well.

“A lot of us are working more than we did when we were still just producing shows in the theater because there’s a lot of work involved with the online presentations, with going after the grants and seeking funds,” Avery said. “Putting all this together — it’s a lot of work, if not more than we’re normally doing.” 

Another avenue local theaters are exploring is virtual education settings, Kelly said. Kelly brought up the Vortex Theatre, which hosts the New Mexico Shakespeare Festival. The organization is using that in-depth knowledge from the festival to virtually teach students about Shakespeare during the pandemic.

“It’s through show and not just tell,” Kelly said.

Avery said in the 91 years that the ALT has been open, there hasn’t ever been a situation that has required a closure of this length. However, Kelly remains positive that theaters will persist, adding that this isn't the first plague that has impacted theaters.

“We as actors and directors and the people who want to make those stories come alive can persevere through; it’s just (that) we’re in the thick of it,” Kelly said. “That’s hard to see a lot of the time.”

Henley questioned what makes movie theaters different from gyms or churches when considering what can open in the pandemic. In accordance with the state’s Public Health Order on April 23, churches are now allowed to operate at 100% capacity regardless of the NMDOH color-coding designation. The new order came after a recent Supreme Court case which struck down COVID-19-related health restrictions for houses of worship, according to KRQE

“If health officials are allowing these other things to be open at some capacity, I kind of feel like movie theaters could be included in that,” Henley said.

Henley compared going to a movie theater to riding an airplane, where everyone is facing one direction in a small space for an extended amount of time.

“One advantage we’ve got is everybody’s facing the same direction and you shouldn’t be talking during a movie, unless it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show or something like that, which I don’t think is going to happen for a while,” Henley said.

Once counties reach the turquoise level, the NMDOH will allow theatres to operate at 33% capacity. Henley said the Guild has been installing a new filtration system to assist in preventing the spread of COVID-19. In addition, the ALT has been planning future productions with minimal staff involvement.

According to the Wall Street Journal, movie-goers are excited to go back to movie theaters, especially as they begin to reopen around the nation. The Associated Press reported that theaters have already reopened across the nation, but New Mexico is one of the last states to delay openings.

“I think there’s going to be a part of the population that’s going to be really eager to start going out again, if they haven’t already. I think movie theaters are one of the things that are missed, and I’m not saying that just to bolster business; I think that’s true,” Henley said. “Across the board, I think a lot of people miss going to the movie theaters. They’re tired of being cooped up at home.”

Still, Henley said he would rather open when it’s safe, not just legal.

“There’s going to be a part of the population that’s not going to feel safe going out, and so I think virtual cinema is going to be here for a while,” Henley said.

Megan Gleason is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716