Never before in the 109-year existence of the Somerville Theatre did it once close its doors to the public. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
The Fraiman family, owners of the Theatre, witnessed financial losses. Regular theatergoers were forced to watch films from the couch, indulging the rising streaming culture. Once lively hubs for entertainment, Davis Square’s independent cinema and theaters everywhere were stripped of their humanity.
Ian Judge, creative director of the Somerville Theatre, explained the hardships the theater faced amidst the pandemic.
“It’s no hyperbole to say that the pandemic was the greatest challenge in the history of the theater,” Judge said.
A year and a half later, The Somerville Theatre reopened its doors to the public, and while it survived its largest challenge, it faced numerous new and overbearing obstacles. Theaters were now in direct competition with streaming services and faced record-low national attendance at the box office.
A major reason for the decline in box office sales was the result of shifting dynamics between studios and theaters.
Before the pandemic, theaters were in control of the first wave of big budget releases — new films were only shown in theaters prior to release on digital screens. However, at the beginning of the pandemic, this dynamic shifted, which changed the power dynamic between theaters and Hollywood studios.
Christopher McKenzie, adjunct film instructor at Boston University, called out the unlikely industry-shifting film: “Trolls World Tour” (2020).
“For the first time, … Universal, put [“Trolls”] on streaming the same day it opened in theaters, which broke … the cardinal rule of the relationship between the movie studios and cinemas,” McKenzie said. “For a time, in the pandemic, we saw the power shift to the studios, including this time in which they were starting their own streaming services.”
The rise of studio streaming such as Disney+, and the dismissal of cinemas as the initial hub of new movies, created the recipe for a booming period of streaming in the industry.
“For a good portion of the pandemic, it seemed like … the theaters were starting to be replaced, that theaters like The Somerville Theatre would become more of a niche item,” McKenzie said. “The future was very questionable.”
Judge described a shift in audience engagement as a result of streaming, noting that it contributes to a feeling of collective isolation.
“There has been a little bit of a paradigm shift here in how people go out and interact,” Judge said. “It’s kind of sad. I think a lot of people will, no matter what they’re doing, tend to stay in more.”
At the height of the pandemic, streaming seemed like the future of movie watching. However, in 2022, doubts of streaming services emerged as many failed to demonstrate profits. This led to a dip in subscriptions and streaming as a whole took a dive.
However, these downward trends in streaming have invited cinemas and theaters to reemerge.
“We’re seeing cinemas come back,” McKenzie said. “However, this landscape is very different than it was before the pandemic.”
Despite theaters’ partial revival, the growing corporate culture amongst large cinema chains such as AMC threatens small theaters’ existence.
“It has felt like, for a bit, that we’re going to see the AMCs of the world grow and gobble up the smaller [theaters], and that continues to be a danger, especially in this corporate environment,” McKenzie said. “But then there’s places like the Somerville Theatre that are holding on tight.”
So, what allows these small theaters to continue to hold on?
McKenzie explained that prior to the rise of television, most people would go to the theater at least once a week, with it acting as a “centerpiece of entertainment.”
Ezra Glenn, lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, believes this notion still holds up today.
“There’s really something exciting about film, and about theater,” Glenn said. “It’s an art form we experience together in community.”
Glenn explained that the exercise of watching with a large group gives movie theaters power and presence, unlike watching a film at home.
“To see a comedy in a room by yourself, it’s not that funny. Seeing a comedy in a room where everybody’s laughing, it's contagious,” Glenn said.
Arielle Klein, a senior and regular moviegoer, also described how the process of leaving a theater with a whole audience is part of what makes it a great experience.
“When you’re watching a streaming service, you’re just sitting on your couch,” Klein said. “The experience of the whole exodus from the theater, everybody’s either still speechless, or just processing, or already talking about it or geeking out about some actor, … it’s so fun.”
Although film watching is integral to the movie theater experience, McKenzie added that theaters remain relevant when they attempt to build a community outside of the screening rooms.
“One way that [small theaters] have sustained is not just showing Hollywood films, but also building a community around cinema and around entertainment,” McKenzie said.
In the case of The Somerville Theatre, their management has specifically invested time and energy into other amenities.
In 2021, the theater renovated its second-floor Crystal Ballroom to hold concerts and large events. The theater also recently launched a new membership program for students and holds special screenings for a limited time.
“[People] going to a screening of a movie is like a little small town that pops up just for those couple of hours,” Judge said. “For two hours, that is going to be a communal thing that exists only at that point in time with that mix of people. They’re about to experience it together, and that can make something really special.”
Klein described the experience of stepping into the Somerville Theatre and conveyed why she likes small theaters over larger chains.
“It really has the charm of a more old-fashioned local movie theater. It doesn’t feel like one of those big multiplexes,” Klein said. “It feels more like a movie-going experience rather than ‘I need to see this new blockbuster.’”
Glenn believes the fate of small theaters lies in audiences’ hands.
“I think [small theaters] actually are more resilient because they are more nimble,” Glenn said. “The Somerville [Theatre] is just masterful at mixing a couple of big releases … [with] indie things, festivals, live performances. … They’ve created a whole community around them.”
While the future of small theaters remains relatively uncertain, McKenzie believes that as long as people see theaters not only as places to watch movies but also thriving community hubs, they will prevail.
“We’ve held on very tightly to the notion that these movies still have a communal home to them,” McKenzie said. “Places like Somerville Theatre [and] the work that they do keep that alive.”