Chicago’s art house theater innovates to survive pandemic

The front door of Music Box Theatre, which is a local movie theater that focuses on independent and art house films. (Jack Murray/Medill Reports)

By Jack Murray

Medill Reports

CHICAGO— Music Box Theatre, an arthouse movie theater located on the city’s North Side, has been a Chicago staple since the 1920s. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in the early months of 2020, the future of the theater, especially to those who look at the facility as a second home, was in doubt. 

Sartaj Chowdhury is a regular patron of the theater who was nervous about the future of the facility when the pandemic struck. To help, he purchased a membership that includes discounted tickets and other perks. He did this to help boost the theater’s cash flow and improve its chances to survive the pandemic.

“I’m so glad this place survived. I did not think it was going to be honest,” Chowdhury said. “I legit thought it was going to be like so many of my favorite places that died during the pandemic. I’m just glad that it made it through.”

To appeal to customers like Chowdhury, the theater had to get creative. Kyle Cubr, the senior operations manager at Music Box Theatre, said they offered remote concessions and online streaming to help keep the audience engaged during the period when the theater could not be open for in-person showings. This included offers like a Valentine’s Day package that included flowers and a card, or a Christmas package that included festive movies and snacks. When businesses started to open in the summer/fall period of 2020, the theater opened space outside of the lounge area that could seat around 25 people. 

For customers like Chowdhury and friend Brett Haymaker, the gradual reopening allowed for them to get used to being around others again and showed them just how difficult being away from others has been.

“I feel like the psychological damage (from the pandemic) is bubbling up to the surface now,” Haymaker said. “I’ve realized that I’m very anxious, or that I don’t know how to talk to people anymore. (Being back at Music Box) helped me realize how isolated I’ve been in my house and how small my world has become.”

The theater’s efforts to keep the audience comfortable has been one key to success, but the facility’s amenities and classic feel are just as vital. 

The theater currently boasts two screens showing films that range from classic to new. The movies shown are not the typical blockbuster fare that appear at most movie theaters across the country, but rather they tend to be indie, art-house films that are compatible with 35- and 70-mm film styles. 

New releases that use one of the previous film styles, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film “Licorice Pizza,” are shown in the theater. For the Bradley Cooper-starring title, Cubr said Music Box was the highest grossing theater in the country.

However, much of the programming is from previous eras. General Manager Ryan Oestreich said figuring out what to show is largely done as a result of feedback they get from their regular audience.  

“We like to take as many suggestions as possible and meet every week to talk about our programming and what we think we want to program,” Oestreich said. “We figure out what we like and don’t like and how we can make sure to provide a very healthy mix of things.”

Oestreich said one way they do this is through avoiding showing films at a high frequency. The programming team breaks away from this with movies like “The Room” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which are considered cult classic films and are a tradition at the theater. In most cases, however, once a movie is shown, it will not appear for several years.  

“If we do an Alfred Hitchcock series, we’re going to show four different films and then probably not do an Alfred Hitchcock film series again,” Oestreich said. “We give people who want to see different films as, as frequently as possible, the ability to do that.”

As audiences return to the cinema as a result of vaccination rates rising and COVID-19-mitigation policies ending, Cubr said the demand for repertory programming is increasing.

“I can’t even put a number on the amount of films I’ve seen over the years that I just wouldn’t have an opportunity to see any other way outside of like on my TV or on the internet,” Cubr said. “I think it’s just  great, it’s a great place to be with a bunch of like-minded filmgoers and meet new people and just kind of expand your worldview.”

For customers like Chowdhury, the excitement of a post-pandemic world can be linked to a packed crowd at Music Box Theatre.

“I’m glad they made it through, and I want to see this theater filled up all the time,” Chowdhury said. “Most theaters don’t have the community feeling that this place does, and I think that is super cool.”

Jack Murray is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @Murray_Jack_.