“Hey, how you holding up?” In this time of reaching out and touching base, we asked colleagues across the American film ecosystem how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, what adjustments they’ve been making on the fly, and what they expect is coming down the pike. This series will be updated regularly here as we conduct additional status checks.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Johnson

Peggy Johnson, is the Executive Director of The Loft Cinema, a nonprofit, member-supported independent arthouse on Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, Arizona, not far from the U of A. The Loft closed its doors on Sunday, March 15, and is now offering new films on transactional video-on-demand from distributors like Kino, Film Movement and Oscilloscope—check out their homepage. Interview conducted by text message, Tuesday, March 17 to Thursday, March 19. 

Can you walk me through the decision to close the Loft through [at least] the end of March? You were open through this past weekend, correct? For how long had you thought this might be a possibility; and what were the deciding factors ultimately? 

Things moved very fast. Initially, on Thursday we followed the directions of Tucson’s mayor to restrict public gatherings to 50 people; we decided to reduce capacity on Friday to 50 people in our main screen, which has 370 seats, and to 25 in our two smaller screens that each have fewer than 100 seats. By Saturday night we all agreed we needed to close completely, and we did that at 5pm Sunday.

We made a commitment to continue to pay our staff at least through the end of March. We have been really gratified by the response of our supporters who have been renewing their memberships and making donations.

What was the deciding factor in making the decision to close entirely? What guidance were you following, if not the mayor’s? Were employees concerned about exposure/transmission?

The deciding factor for us was the importance of trying to stay ahead of the crisis. I knew Saturday night that we would close on Sunday. It was a gut feeling informed by events locally, nationally and around the world. We did not feel comfortable providing the community a place to congregate even in restricted numbers. We also wanted to be sure our staff was safe, and we continue our commitment to pay all the staff as long as we can.

It wasn’t responsible to stay open. 

I have to say in the 18 years we have owned The Loft Cinema, Sunday was our most difficult day ever and in many ways it broke my heart. I got no sleep. But this crisis is scary and there is so much unknown, and whatever we could do to make even a small difference was more important than any sentiment or concern about The Loft. This is bigger than any single business and we have to pull together as a community. 

Yesterday our mayor issued a proclamation declaring a local emergency and ordered many businesses to close, including all cinemas. It was a sobering message but it’s helpful to have clear leadership in Tucson.

What, broadly, are the battle-stations concerns right now; and how far into the future are you looking? What happens when you can no longer pay employees? (Do you lay them off so they can collect unemployment?) Will there come a time when the outpouring of support & solidarity from patrons (memberships, donations, etc) becomes inadequate? What sort of support do you need from corporate sponsors; or the city? (Do you own or lease the theater?)

It’s early and we’re still trying to adjust to the new reality. The Loft Cinema has an incredibly creative staff that is coming up with all kinds of ways to sustain our impact on our community and to generate support for The Loft so that when we reopen, we will be able to hit the ground running. We are being creative with our finances in the meantime, cutting expenses where we can and generating revenue in traditional (i.e. memberships and donations) and untraditional (i.e. community on-line viewing experiences, selling merchandise, etc.). We’re looking at every program, organization and institution for ways we can survive this unprecedented moment in history.

We are waiting to see what kind of support will be available at the federal, state and local levels for nonprofit arts organizations. We hope to see some relief… certainly $1000 paychecks for our employees will make a big difference. As Executive Director, I feel a special responsibility to take care of everyone who works at The Loft. We immediately doubled everyone’s paid sick leave when we decided to stay open with reduced capacity. We will do everything in our power to make sure all our employees are paid, whether by us or the federal government, and we prioritize making sure they keep their health insurance. Layoffs will be the last resort and are something we hope we can avoid. Most important, we will strive to make sure The Loft Cinema reopens as soon as it is safe so that they will all be back at work!

It’s too early to know how long the support and solidarity from patrons will keep us afloat.

We own our theatre and are working with our lenders to see if we can defer payment during this crisis. While we have cash reserves, they won’t take us too far, so we will be relying on support wherever we can find it, especially our generous patrons and individual and corporate donors. We are waiting to see what kind of help we can get from the city and other organizations like the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona. In addition to our creative staff, we have a Board of Directors with many skills, connections, and knowledge who are helping us as we navigate these early days of generating ideas and exploring possibilities, and making sure we have up to date information on everything that impacts our business.

We hope to be able to continue to provide our audiences with films with some sort of on-line presence. For now, we know that we will be screening Saint Frances and Bacurau, working with the distributors of these films we were scheduled to open (Oscilloscope and Kino, respectively).  

In the end, a movie theatre is about showing films on the big screen, and as hard as this closure has been for us, we empathize with the filmmakers whose work was scheduled to open in this time frame, so we will continue to champion their work in any way we can.

We are looking into all possibilities. Hard to keep track but education, community engagement. Everything is on the table and everything is outside the box. We are concentrating on the more immediate future and haven’t projected programming out since we have no idea how long this will last!

Regular Film Comment contributor Mark Asch donated his fee for this series to the Cinema Worker Solidarity Fund, and encourages you to make a donation as well.