Those familiar with the Loft Cinema might know of a certain gong that gets struck when the audience deems a homemade film sufficiently unbearable. And while that gong hasn’t rang out in nearly a year, it continues to symbolize the arthouse cinema’s connection, both to the local film community and to thinking outside the box. It’s no secret 2020 was arduous for movie theaters, but the nonprofit Loft kept busy with a variety of unique movie events—and their upcoming screenings of the Sundance Film Festival may be their most important yet.
Ironically enough, 2020 was the best start to a year the Loft had ever experienced. But everything changed in that second week of March. According to executive director Peggy Johnson, the theater staff met on Wednesday, March 11, to discuss how they’d proceed during the pandemic. On Thursday, they realized the situation was becoming severe. On Friday, they reduced capacity. And on Sunday, they completely closed.
“It was like a total flip of a switch, going from our best year ever to closed,” Johnson said. “And now it’s gone on so much longer than anyone thought.”
Within that initial month of closure, the Loft started the first of many COVID endeavors: streaming films. Thanks to a partnership with distributors, fans were able to view films on the Loft’s website. They began selling curbside concessions soon after. According to Johnson, these two alternatives began strong, but dwindled over time.
Smaller ventures followed: custom messages on their marquee, personalized film recommendations, sales of backlog inventory. But by the beginning of summer, they initiated their most successful option yet: private screenings. Groups of 10 or less could rent an entire theater at $100 an hour to view nearly any movie they’d like—a useful outing for those unlucky enough to have a “pandemic birthday.”
“That also really caught on, but again dwindled,” Johnson said. “I think people just got so afraid when the peaks happened.”
With summer winding down, the Loft initiated their next major project: Open Air Cinema. For the first time since closing, dozens of people could come to the Loft to see a movie, albeit projected outdoors in their parking lot. They began by screening cult classics like American Psycho and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. For the first few months, every screening sold out.
Johnson says these types of ideas were shared between arthouse cinemas. During these difficult times, the industry grew closer, and cinemas let each other know about which tactics worked, and if there were any new nonprofit funds they may have missed.
But even more support came from their patrons. Whereas supporters previously purchased a membership to enjoy perks like free movies and snacks, Johnson says people are now becoming members simply to support the Loft. Supporters also lead to the Loft being able to screen new films outdoors, a critical step to becoming one of the locations for this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s been very gratifying to see how much we mean to people. Because they don’t just send a donation, they also send notes of support.
And I’ve heard that from nonprofits all over Tucson, that the public has been incredible,” Johnson said. “And through the generosity of some of our supporters, we were able to get a [Digital Cinema Package] projector, which you basically need to screen new movies outside.”
The Sundance Film Festival is the largest independent film festival in the nation, credited with being the “big break” for directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson. After four decades, the festival is going virtual for the first time with the help of more than 20 “Satellite Screens”: arthouse cinemas throughout the nation that will be hosting events and live screenings during the festival’s run.
“Even under these impossible circumstances, artists are still finding paths to make bold and vital work in whatever ways they can,” said Tabitha Jackson, director of the Sundance Film Festival in a press release. “So Sundance, as a festival of discovery, will bring that work to its first audiences in whatever ways we can. The core of our Festival in the form of an online platform and socially distanced cinematic experiences is responsive to the pandemic and gives us the opportunity to reach new audiences, safely, where they are.”
The Loft will be the only Satellite Screen in Arizona, and according to Loft program director Jeff Yanc, the Loft was the first cinema Sundance asked to participate.
“In June when Sundance first approached us, all the COVID parts were still moving. No one knew how things would look in January 2021, so this whole process has been evolving over the months,” Yanc said. “We wanted to start the Open Air Cinema because we knew our own theater wouldn’t be opening for indoor screenings anytime in 2020, and that perfectly dovetailed with Sundance so that we could do all those screenings outdoors.”
The Loft will screen a variety of new Sundance films from Thursday, Jan. 28 through Wednesday, Feb. 3, including Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, a documentary about Puerto Rican actress and singer Rita Moreno; Judas and the Black Messiah, a biopic about Black Panther Fred Hampton who was assassinated by the FBI and Chicago Police; and Jockey, a drama about an aging horse rider aiming for his final championship. Because the Loft’s Open Air Cinema is still at reduced capacity, Yanc anticipates the films will sell out quickly.
In addition to the screenings, the Satellite Screens will host “Beyond Film” events, which aim to add local perspectives on films where they’re showing. The Loft will be hosting a virtual Q&A with the filmmakers of Jockey, which was filmed in Arizona; and a panel discussion around Rita Moreno (who was a guest at Loft in 2015), speaking with local Hispanic women of influence such as Mayor Regina Romero.
“We host a film festival every year ourselves, and have early access to the films. But for Sundance, we haven’t seen the films yet because of the world-premiere status, so it’s a very different model for putting the festival together,” Yanc said. “I’m in the position of a viewer as well, which is very exciting.”
Due to their success with outdoor screenings, Yanc anticipates the Loft will continue their Open Air Cinema even once they can completely reopen.
“This has actually been a great way to start what I think is going to be another very unusual year,” Yanc said. “Getting to be part of the Sundance Film Festival is really an honor… I think it’s not only good for the Loft, but good for the Tucson film community in general. It raises the visibility of Tucson both on the national and international film scene.”
Looking forward, there is still much in the air for the Loft. The pandemic hindered plans for expansion that would have added two new screens and enlarged the concessions area. Now, the Loft staff has “scaled back ambitions,” but still plans on at least increasing accessibility to their upstairs screen and restrooms. In the meantime, they simply plan on getting movies to the masses however they can.
“We’ve wanted to maintain a presence and relationship with our audiences, and help people continue to experience the Loft in whatever form is possible, whether that’s a rental or streaming or coming to the Sundance films,” Johnson said. “It probably would have been cheaper for us to simply close our doors and let all the staff go, but we wanted to keep people employed and engaged the best we could. I’m really happy we were able to, because it’s been a kind of refuge from the scariness of the world.”
Sundance Film Festival at The Loft Cinema runs from Thursday, Jan. 28, through Wednesday, Feb. 3. 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., plus virtual events. For more information, visit loftcinema.org