Tucked in Hollywood less than two blocks from the towering ArcLight Cinemas on Sunset Boulevard, the Arena Cinelounge has been showing independent films and cult favorites for nearly a decade. With just 60 seats, its small scale typically results in sold-out shows even on weeknights. But a nimble operation also means that owner Christian Meoli is in a prime position to reopen far earlier than multiplexes like AMC and Regal, which aren’t aiming to get back to business until mid-July.
On Friday, June 19, Meoli was set to go with medical-grade air purifiers, a contactless box office, limited capacity, and pre-packaged concessions, courtesy of the theater’s gourmet popcorn line. But on Thursday afternoon, at the last minute, the city of Los Angeles changed its course and barred theaters from reopening after all. The announcement came a day after Governor Gavin Newsom mandated face coverings in most public spaces at all times.
“I’m really disappointed,” Meoli told IndieWire after the news broke. “I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how all of those businesses like nail salons, massage parlors, tattoo parlors, card rooms, gyms [can reopen] and not cinemas. I’m flabbergasted. But I know that I’m ready, and I’m excited for when they give us the green light. I feel completely confident that we will essentially be one of the safest locations in all of Los Angeles to see cinema.”
The unexpected blow was delivered to Meoli via the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), who were aware that LA could repeal its decision at the last moment. For its opening week, the Arena Cinelounge was set to screen the new IFC Films release “Babyteeth,” as well as a restored version of Philip Kaufman’s 1988 Milan Kundera adaptation “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” The programming lineup has been shifted to this Friday, June 26, as indicated by the theater’s website, which is currently selling tickets for the upcoming weekend. (Whether or not theaters in LA can indeed reopen this Friday will be confirmed by LA County on Thursday.)
The plan for whenever Arena Cinelounge is able to reopen is to keep the maximum capacity at 15 people. “We’ve decreased the seat count in a very fun way; we’ve put some celebrities in the theater, cardboard standees, to make it look full,” Meoli said. “Face masks are required, with six-feet social distancing in place in our lobby.” He said that the purifiers in place have HEPA H-13 filters, that will “essentially clean the air in the theater and lobby every 30 minutes. I think we may have the cleanest air of anybody in LA right now. It may become a selling point. Come to the movies for some clean air!”
Meoli also said “we have diagrammed our space. We have recognized and minimized touch points in the space. We’ve also recognized what potentially could be hotspots, and we’re going to be sanitizing those every 30 minutes. The only other thing I could do is maybe put a mask on the screen!”
The Cinelounge was also in good shape to reopen because, as Meoli said, “we’re not dependent on studio titles for what we’re doing. This is an incredible summer for independent film of which we have not had for a long time because of the lack of studio content that is going to be released.” But as the major chains prepare to reopen — to much ado about whether masks would be required or not — studios are nervous about putting their content out into the world at a time when coronavirus continues to surge throughout the nation. Warner Bros. moved Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the tentpole the entire summer movie season (or what remains of it) is hanging on, back from July 17 to July 31, and the rest of its slate, along with those of other studios, fell in line.
Meoli said he’s planning to pitch Warner Bros. to offer “Tenet” to the Arena Cinelounge, which he believes to be a safer space than a multiplex right now. “I think you’d want to be comfortable,” he said. “We’re in a day and age where you may actually want to know the name of the person who’s behind the box office, right? And you want to feel safe.”
The devastating financial toll on major theater chains, Meoli suggested, means “cineplexes need to pivot really quick on what they’re offering, and their personal relationships with their audience base. Personalization has to step forward. There needs to be an ambassador or representative or manager who’s interfacing with the customers and continuing to assure them that the theater is on top of it. Am I going to walk into a 15-plex with that confidence? I’m not sure.”
Meoli said, however, that his customer base should feel confident to come back to the Arena Cinelounge, especially because of its small footprint. “People want to come back to theaters, and I believe it is as safe an environment, if not more so, than bars and the other businesses that have been previously reopened,” he said. “What it represents though is a return to film culture and films being presented seven nights a week, and people are starving for that. There is an audience that’s eager to come see anything.”