Salem Cinema will have reduced seating capacity going forward due to social distancing. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter) 

Loretta Miles looks back at the reopening of Salem Cinema last fall as a “dress rehearsal.”

Miles, who has owned the arthouse theater since 1990, will open again to the public on Friday, March 12, after holding a few private screenings. Like last time, sanitization, masking and social distancing requirements will remain in place

She first reopened Salem Cinema on Oct. 23 after closing its doors last March as the Covid pandemic and its accompanying restrictions took hold in Oregon.

She described the four weeks the theater was open last fall as “absolutely wonderful.”

Over the years, Miles has gotten to know many of the theater’s patrons and even knew what they’d order at the concession counter. She said recognized many patrons even behind their masks.

“People were overjoyed to be back,” she said. Opening week, she screened films from the Manhattan Short Film Festival, her most-anticipated event, to grateful audiences.

Then on Nov. 13, Gov. Kate Brown announced a new round of restrictions on businesses in response to spiking Covid numbers. Miles had to close again.

“It felt like the rug got yanked out from under me,” said Miles.

With restrictions again relaxed, Salem Cinema, located at 1127 Broadway St. N.E., will be screening “Nomadland,” “Minari” and “The Father.”   

But other theaters in Salem remain shuttered. The city’s three Regal movie theaters are closed. Northern Lights Theatre Pub, a second-run theater, located at 3893 Commercial St S.E., closed in August of last year.

Northern Lights website hints at some “new developments.” Phone calls, emails and Facebook messages to the theater went unreturned as of Thursday afternoon.

As Salem Cinema reopens, it faces steep challenges that Miles is optimistic the theater will be able to meet.

Miles said the big one is being six months behind on rent.

To cover the back rent, Miles started a campaign to get supporters of the theater to make $39 monthly donations (or smaller amounts) throughout 2021 to mark its 39th year of being in business. Supporters of the theater have also held fundraisers, including Salem’s nationally acclaimed folk duo True North, who held an online performance last month to raise money.

While the fundraisers have raised tens of thousands of dollars, Miles said the theater still hasn’t quite raised enough. But her landlord is applying for a grant from a state program that’ll hopefully cover the back rent.

Miles said other factors out of her control. New and more contagious variants of Covid have popped up in Oregon. There’s also the film industry itself. With movie theaters closed and people stuck at home, movie studios have turned to streaming services such as HBO Max and Disney + for new releases.

“The stalemate so far has been movie theaters can’t be successful and open without movies,” said Miles. “And studios don’t want to sell movies until they know theaters can open and sell tickets.”

But Miles is hopeful that as movie-goers feel more comfortable returning to theaters, studios will release more films.

During Salem Cinema’s dress rehearsal last fall, Miles said the theater worked out a “couple bugs” in its Covid protocols. She said the biggest takeaway from reopening was the realization of how many people still want to venture out of their houses to watch movies and how a community has grown up around the theater.

She said her staff, all movie enthusiasts, are all excited to reopen.

“I think that for the first couple weeks every day will be a party,” she said.

  Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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