It’s been a challenging year for the Ark Lodge Cinemas. The Columbia City theater was already struggling financially when the coronavirus pandemic necessitated closing its doors in March, and its owner, David McRae, launched a GoFundMe this fall to help with rent (which the theater had fallen behind on) and hoped-for renovations.
But now comes some good news for the theater’s future: Justin Pritchett, who grew up going to movies in North Seattle and has 18 years of experience in the movie business, has joined McRae as managing partner, and will take over as sole proprietor of the business within five years.
Pritchett, who worked in several positions at the former Metro Cinemas in the University District (later Sundance and AMC 10) and later as director of operations for the CGV Cinemas chain in California, relocated back to Seattle with his family this year. Until recently, he’d never entered the Ark Lodge, but after connecting with McRae through mutual friends in the local movie business — it’s a small world — he made his first visit to the 1920s-era lodge-turned-theater, and felt an instant connection.
“It gave me the same nostalgia that I felt going to the Metro, or the Guild, or the Varsity, very similar to that,” he said, in a telephone interview this week. “I know if we can get through this time of COVID, we can definitely keep the movie theater going. I wanted to help out and be part of that.”
McRae, who turns 60 this month, said he’d always thought that when his lease was up in 2027, he’d like to retire and turn the theater over to another owner, ideally a family. “And then, of course, came COVID,” he said. “That changed the trajectory.” Having Pritchett come on now, he said, “works out beautifully,” so the two of them can work together to face the theater’s challenges, with Pritchett adding to the mix his strengths in food and beverage operations, maintenance and awareness of COVID protocols for an in-business theater (the CGV chain in California was open during the pandemic).
A closed cinema generates no revenue, but still has bills to be paid. McRae, in a difficult position with his landlord (the building is currently for sale), launched his ambitious GoFundMe in September, with the goal of raising $750,000 to pay for back rent/expenses, and for long-planned improvements to the theater during this time of forced closure: ADA accessibility, new seats, enhanced food service. The fund currently stands at approximately $65,000, and McRae said he knew that the fundraising process would be a slow one, taking maybe a year. Should the building be sold during that time, he’s hoping the new owner would honor his lease.
McRae and Pritchett are launching something new at the theater this week: curbside sales of popcorn (and Ark Lodge T-shirts) on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Pritchett said that selling popcorn won’t be what saves the theater financially, but is a way for neighbors “to see the faces of the people trying to keep the Ark Lodge in the community,” and to spread awareness of future plans. (And it’s a chance, he said, to try out some new popcorn flavors; starting next week, he hopes to offer not just traditional but chocolate, caramel, and sour cream and onion.)
Pritchett has ambitious plans for the theater, saying he’d like to see it become a community gathering place, eventually offering filmmaking workshops or hosting municipal outreach. He dreams of creating a kitchen on the second floor and inviting guest chefs.
But primarily, he can’t wait to see the Ark Lodge hosting movies again: “When you’re at a theater, you’re with a bunch of strangers, you’re all sharing the same experience, laughing or scared or crying together — that’s special.” When things start to get back to normal, he said, “people are going to yearn for that.”