What might post-pandemic moviegoing look like? “Like your friend’s house,” said Mark Stern. That is, if your friend had a 15-foot-wide screen.
Stern, who, with his wife Katie, owned and operated the boutique movie house The Big Picture in Belltown for more than 20 years, believes in the future of movie theaters. “That social element,” he said, “it’s never going to go away.” While the single-screen Big Picture couldn’t compete with chain multiplexes, it offered a very different experience, something Stern believes customers want: a small, comfortable theater; a full bar; an elegant and intimate evening out.
And though they abruptly lost their lease at the Belltown location back in 2020, shortly after closing for the pandemic, the Sterns are ready to pursue their dream again. About a year ago, they spotted a “for rent” sign in a former pub in Issaquah’s Old Town, across the street from the public library. After months of renovation and planning — and figuring out how to squeeze a cinema into a restaurant layout — The Big Picture is back, and will open with “The Batman” in March. As of this writing, an exact opening date has not been set.
It’s a business model that’s very different from Issaquah’s only other cinema, the Regal Issaquah Highlands IMAX & RPX, a vast 12-screen multiplex a couple of miles away. From the sidewalk, the new Big Picture looks more like a cozy bar than a movie theater, with sofas, armchairs and small tables arranged in intimate groupings.
Unlike the previous Big Picture, you won’t need a movie ticket to come in for a drink, and the Sterns expect much of their business to come that way: The lobby, in fact, seats far more people than the theater, and can be reserved for events. Regulars of the Belltown theater will recognize the décor: armchairs with animal prints, ornately carved screens and sidebars, an antique tuba (it belonged to Katie’s stepmother’s brother, who brought it from England) regally watching over things from a shelf above the bar. Offerings will include not only beer, wine and movie-themed cocktails but a food menu featuring popcorn alongside burgers, Chicago-style hot dogs (Mark, who’s from Chicago, wanted his hometown represented), pizza and other casual meals.
Patrons can eat in the lobby or in the theater, where food and drink can be delivered to their seats. The small theater — 33 seats, including a cozy love seat in the front row — features a 15 1/2-by-7-foot screen and Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound. And, in a nod to pandemic safety, a UV air filtration system has been installed. The Sterns plan to show first-run films daily, but expect that some of their business will be from patrons renting the entire theater — who can then watch either what’s playing or whatever movie they want to bring in.
Anyone opening a new movie theater these days is facing a challenge: Movie attendance in 2021 was down 61% from pre-coronavirus 2019, according to Variety (though 2021 was a huge increase over 2020, which saw closed theaters for a large chunk of the year), and a Morning Consult poll taken at the end of 2021 showed only 47% of U.S. adults saying they were comfortable going to movie theaters. Nationally, 12% of theaters that were open pre-pandemic remain closed, most of them permanently.
But Mark, a third-generation movie theater owner (his father and grandfather operated theaters in the Chicago area), thinks the future of cinema will be increasingly at two extremes: very large, spectacle-oriented theaters, and tiny intimate theaters like his own. (One Eastside example of the latter: the corporate-owned iPic in Redmond, which operates seven small screens and serves a variety of food and drink.) He noted that patrons concerned about coronavirus transmission will be more comfortable in a smaller group, and that after two years of a pandemic, “we need to be social.”