When Tori Baker closed the doors of the Salt Lake Film Society’s theaters in March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she committed to staying closed for at least six weeks.
“Everybody in the art house industry though I was nuts,” Baker said this week. “Everybody was like, ‘You’re going to lose all these titles, we’re going to be open in two weeks.’”
In the end, the Salt Lake Film Society kept its two theaters — the six-screen Broadway Centre Cinemas in downtown Salt Lake City, and the historic Tower Theatre in the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood — shuttered for 19 months, as the pandemic surged and receded and surged again.
On Friday, the nonprofit society will reopen the Broadway, while the Tower will continue its renovations.
“We’ve done a lot of cleaning out — and we don’t mean we’ve [just] vacuumed,” Baker said.
In the Tower, which opened in 1928 and was first remodeled in 1950, Baker said, “we’ve literally gutted everything. We’ve pulled everything out, we’ve assessed our archive collections. We’ve looked at all the things that we have under the stages and behind it, in nooks and crannies.”
The scope of the Tower’s renovations, and delays in the supply chain, have pushed the theater’s opening into 2022, Baker said. (One casualty of this delay: Out of the Shadows Theatre Group has moved its annual Halloween shadow-cast presentation of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the Alliance Theatre in Trolley Square, on Oct. 22, 23 and 29, at 8 p.m. each night.)
In the Broadway, Baker said the most obvious change will be the health and safety protocols being implemented. Salt Lake Film Society is among 400 exhibitors nationwide that have implemented the CinemaSafe program, designed to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus. Signage, she said, will be abundant.
The opening weekend lineup will be an eclectic mix of independent films, with one big-budget surprise: “Dune,” director Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel of palace intrigue, mind-altering spice and giant desert worms.
Being an art house, Baker said, “means that we’re also curating art by artistic merit, too. I always will play a Martin Scorsese or a Quentin Tarantino film, even though they’re not typically going to be sold to me as a small art house. It’s about the artists and it’s about the artwork.”
To go along with Villeneuve’s “Dune,” the Broadway also will screen the 2013 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” which details the failed 1970s effort of cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to bring his crazy version of Herbert’s novel to the screen. And on Oct. 29, Baker has booked David Lynch’s visually stunning but narratively cramped 1984 adaptation of “Dune,” starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and a blue-codpiece-wearing Sting.
Also playing this weekend are: Mia Hanson-Løve’s romantic drama “Bergman Island,” starring Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth; Todd Haynes’ music documentary “The Velvet Underground”; “The Rescue,” a documentary detailing the ordeal of a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave in 2018; the Netflix-produced Western “The Harder They Fall,” starring Idris Elba and Regina King; and a re-release of the 1981 horror thriller “Possession,” with Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill.
While the Broadway will be open to sell tickets and serve popcorn, Salt Lake Film Society will continue to show films in its SLFS@Home online portal. That program started in response to the pandemic, simulating the art house experience to stream at home. Since launching the at-home portal, Baker said, SLFS has worked with 34 art houses nationwide to adapt the software to their use.
The nonprofit SLFS also created a summer program, the Backlot Cinema, a boutique drive-in theater that screened a curated selection of films on Friday and Saturday nights. The drive-in’s season ended on Oct. 16, but Baker said it will return next year when the weather warms up.
Baker decided in May that October would be the target date to reopen the Broadway, both because of lingering questions about the pandemic and because there are more art house titles available in the fall than in the blockbuster-heavy summer.
The question Baker asked in deciding when to reopen, she said, was, “what are the costs that you have to incur to be operable, versus the number of people who are ready to come back?”
It’s a question Hollywood has been wrestling with in recent weeks. The answer, based on box office figures, seem to be that action movies aimed at teen and young-adult audiences — such as “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” — are selling plenty of tickets, while movies aimed at older audiences (the most recent example is the medieval drama “The Last Duel”) are not luring as many patrons into theaters.
The Broadway’s return comes two weeks after another downtown Salt Lake City theater held a splashy grand opening. The Megaplex Theatre at The Gateway officially reopened Oct. 8, after a soft opening a few weeks earlier.
The Utah-based Megaplex chain renovated the Gateway location, which opened in 2001 with a dozen auditoriums, into a nine-screen complex with all recliner seats, laser projection and Dolby Atmos sound. Megaplex removed two theaters, and retrofitted a third into an event room, something the company’s other locations have made available for wedding receptions, business meetings and other happenings.
Baker credited the support of donors and the community for allowing SLFS to keep its bricks-and-mortar theaters closed for 19 months.
“They want to support you, they feel like you’re important in the community. But you just don’t know how far you can push that,” Baker said, adding that, “we have options, because we’re community-based and mission-driven, and other cinemas need to just get open and earn some revenue.”