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Future of Cinema: Cedar Lee Theatre Reopens

Written by Megan Baranuk and Lauren Koleszar // Photographed by Max Torres

Cedar Lee Theatre reopens, though the future of cinema remains uncertain.

Many small businesses and local attractions have taken hits throughout the course of the pandemic, but that didn’t stop Cedar Lee Theatre from reopening on Friday, August 21. The theatre, located in Cleveland Heights, opened its doors to the public for the first time since its closure during the pandemic. This is a big step for Cedar Lee, and allows movie goers to watch new and old movies alike. Cedar Lee often screens newer movies as they release as well as classic films. Currently, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” is one of the older movies you can catch on the big screen. Cedar Lee Theatre remains one of the only theatres in the area to feature art-house films that aren’t seen as options in mainstream theaters, and its concession stand sells baked goods, coffee and imported beers and wine. Clevelanders frequent this unique theatre due to its distinction amongst other chain theaters. Cedar Lee Theatre is a subsidiary of Cleveland Cinemas, which consists of four active locations: Cedar Lee Theatre, Apollo Theater, Capitol Theater and Chagrin Cinemas.

Cedar Lee Theatre opened its doors for the first time on Christmas Day in 1925, but it wasn’t transformed until 1983 when it began meeting people’s demands by expanding into a twin screen theatre. The first film to ever be shown at Cedar Lee was a silent short movie called “The King on Main Street”. The show was paired with various shorts. At the time, the theater had only 1,100 seats and one screen. In 1994, the theatre went from two screens to six. The Cedar Lee Theatre is known for showing specialty films — mainly independent and foreign films. The theater hosted the Cleveland International Film Fest in 1977, until Tower City Cinemas took over the privilege of hosting in 1991. An interesting tradition Cedar Lee is particularly known for is screening “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on the first Saturday of each month at midnight.

"Cedar Lee Theatre remains one of the only theatres in the area to feature art-house films that aren’t seen as options in mainstream theaters, and its concession stand sells baked goods, coffee and imported beers and wine."

Cedar Lee’s reopening was a decision made with many safety precautions in mind. The lobby will have social-distancing markers to ensure that guests are at least six feet away from each other at all times. The theatre will be ensuring that there are touchless payment options for tickets and concessions, and buying tickets online in advance is highly encouraged to minimize unnecessary contact. Cedar Lee’s staff has their temperature taken each time they report for work, wears masks at all times, and frequently washes their hands. The staff also disinfects all surfaces throughout the day and night. The theatre has installed plexiglass in front of the register, and all guests who are not eating or drinking must wear masks. Theater staff has roped off certain rows and seats to comply with social-distancing guidelines, cutting capacity in half. The theatre has distanced its showtimes further apart in time to encourage crowd control and to provide ample time for the staff to properly clean all areas between shows. With all of these safety guidelines in place, guests feel comfortable and safe viewing new mainstream, specialty and retro films on screen. Jon Forman, the President of Cleveland Cinemas, is quite eager to welcome the public back into the familiar theatre that many avid movie goers have dearly missed. The theatre is sure to expect new faces as well, being one of few theaters currently open to the public.

Cleveland Cinemas’ Tower City Cinema has announced that it is closing down permanently, causing Cleveland Cinemas to lose a theater location. Cleveland Cinemas decided to shut down its Tower City location due to financial duress inflicted by the pandemic in conjunction with the lease expiring. Open since 1998, its closing will bring an end to a long and storied history. The theatre was known for hosting Cleveland International Film Fest and being a popular theatre for downtown Clevelanders to frequent. The owner of Tower City, Bedrock, and Cleveland Cinemas are in discussions about what possibilities lie in the future for a new theatre. Movie-goers are encouraged to check out other branches of Cleveland Cinemas. Tower City isn’t the only theatre that will be shutting off its screens and closing its doors for a final time. Many theatres across the country will continue to close their doors, and film festivals continue to be postponed. Cinema fans are fortunately able to have access to new and old films alike on various streaming platforms. However, the effect of seeing films at a theatre is incomparable to watching a film within one’s own home. Going to the cinema is considered a classic American experience; packing into the car with one’s family to see a new movie, experiencing an awkward first date at the theatre, or frequenting the latest films with friends are experiences that many Americans remember fondly — and experiences that will hopefully live on generations into the future.

The Cinematheque is another hidden gem located in Cleveland’s University Circle, known for showing foreign films and restored classics, as well as independent films. Opening in 2015, this theatre is an extension of the Cleveland Institute of Art. The Cinematheque has suspended its screenings indefinitely, but has offered an innovative method to keep fans engaged and to continue showing films as normally as possible — they call this the virtual cinema, offering different films available for purchase to watch temporarily at home. The way this works is by clicking a link, paying $12 to view the film, and having 48 hours to watch after it is accessed. The Cinematheque is able to engage with audiences in this way and continue to give access to films that are not accessible in most theatres in the area. Viewing films available from the Cinematheque’s website is a great way to gain exposure to new films, foreign, independent and classic. New titles become available for browsing every week.

The future of cinema remains shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. Even before the pandemic, the cinema industry’s future was not guaranteed. The increased popularity of television was the cinema industry’s first major blow, followed by home video releases. In recent years, streaming services have severely crippled the industry. The pandemic — coupled with the rising popularity of streaming services — may be the final blow to cinema. Many films that were set to come out during the pandemic instead turned to streaming services, such as Disney+ or Netflix, causing box offices to take an extreme revenue hit. Films such as Roma and The Irishman saw very limited theatrical releases before heading straight to Netflix. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more likely some cinemas and movie theatres will be closing their doors forever. Film festivals, however, will likely continue as soon as it is safe to do so, as streaming services have not — and likely will not — hold entirely virtual film festivals (though they could sponsor a few). Cedar Lee Theatre is looking like a hot contender to take on the Cleveland International Film Festival — but only time will tell.

Some hope remains for the cinema, as drive-ins saw a surge in popularity over the past summer. Drive-ins popped up across the nation this summer and were immensely popular in a fashion that was unseen in recently previous years. These drive-ins offered people the opportunity to gather while socially distancing with friends and family, providing a safe way to experience the magic of cinema that so many had missed. Pop-up cinemas also became prevalent thanks to Michael B. Jordan and Amazon. These pop-up theatres consumed entire Walmart parking lots and welcomed crowds of cars. Presumably, movie theatres will experience the same surge in popularity, as people have become very nostalgic for movie theatres and other activities that are increasingly difficult to enjoy in these times. The nostalgia may even be the saving grace for cinema, as the industry itself has been waning over the past several years.

Though cinema’s future remains uncertain, Cedar Lee is reopened and waiting to see your face (WITH a mask!) soon. The cinemas of Cleveland will continue to persevere in the midst of the pandemic and can count on avid movie goers for support. Cedar Lee Theatre remains a staple in viewing specialty films, and its rarity is a factor that is sure to keep it open in the ages to come. Check out Cedar Lee’s website for information on what’s showing now, and reserve tickets online!

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