Parkway Theater faces uncertain future after ceasing operations and laying off staff – Baltimore Sun

The Parkway Theater is at risk of becoming the first major casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic in Baltimore’s arts community, as theater operators canceled all film screenings indefinitely after Jan. 1 and laid off most of its staff in the aim of stemming the financial flight. .

Three of the boardwalk’s six full-time staff and all eight part-time staff were told on Friday they would lose their jobs in early 2023, chief executive Sandra Gibson said.

Film screenings and other public events, such as concerts and venue rentals, will also cease after Jan. 1, though Gibson said the boardwalk will still be open to film students taking classes at its two institutional partners. : Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Institute College. of art. Spokespersons for those schools could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

The first indication to local art lovers that the boardwalk was in trouble came last month, when the board announced it was canceling the 2023 Maryland Film Festival, which has run annually since 1999.

Gibson and Scot Spencer, chairman of the board, said they hope a stronger boardwalk, an institution on a sounder financial footing, will reopen in 2023.

“Nonprofits have been operating in a very different environment since the pandemic,” Gibson said. “It was brutal. The board has decided to press the pause button so that we can come up with a new business model and figure out how to deploy our resources before the time when we no longer have that opportunity.

Gibson said paid attendance at the boardwalk was 34,000 in 2019, the year before COVID-19 swept through Maryland and shut down arts venues statewide. For the year ending December 31, paying attendance is expected to be 9,800, a decline of 71%. Revenue over the same period is expected to drop about 52%, she said.

The boardwalk’s most recent federal Form 990, a tax form filed by nonprofit organizations, lists total expenses of $1,522,175 for 2021 and total income of $1,234,515, resulting in a deficit of $287,660.

The boardwalk’s problems echo a global decline in cinema that has persisted even after cinemas reopened. The Motion Picture Association reported in its 2021 Thematic Report that worldwide ticket sales last year were only half their pre-pandemic level of $42.3 billion.

“It’s obvious to everyone in the arts community that there’s been this seismic shift in habits because of the pandemic,” Spencer said. “Movie theaters are seeing fewer and fewer spectators. Fans are increasingly turning to movie streaming. I don’t think anyone in the industry has yet understood what gets people out and what keeps them in.

When the ornate theater with its Italian Renaissance-inspired facade opened 107 years ago, the promenade could seat 1,100 patrons and boasted an organ, orchestra and a cameraman capturing local news .

Over the next half-century, the promenade suffered several reversals of fortune, and in 1978 it closed for good. The theater had fallen into disrepair in 2012, when the Maryland Film Festival acquired the building from the city of Baltimore.

After an ambitious $18 million renovation, the theater reopened in 2017 to much fanfare and amid rave reviews it would help revitalize and stabilize the hallway near Charles Street and North Avenue.

Then-Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said at the dedication that the boardwalk would become “an economic engine…for this part of town.”

Once the excitement died down, theater operators had to figure out how to run a theater in a niche market, one that featured independent and foreign films and that, in the 21st century, lacked the name recognition once enjoyed by the ride.

“People come into our building all the time and ask what we’re doing here,” Spencer said.

In September 2018, the Board of Directors adopted a strategic plan aimed at achieving breakeven in five or six years. That plan called for “slow and steady audience growth” through 2023, Spencer said. The financial forecast was built around the expectation that the ride would generate 48% of its operating revenue from ticket sales, venue rentals and other forms of earned income, with the remaining 52% coming from public subsidies and private donations.

Gibson was hired as executive director in November 2019.

“It’s fair to say that for all of 2019, we were pretty much on track and on track to meet our financial goals,” Spencer said. “And then the pandemic hit, and overnight we found ourselves in a completely changed environment.”

The boardwalk responded by becoming one of the first theaters in the country to offer virtual movie screenings, Gibson said. And for a time, the institution was able to pay its bills with the help of generous donors and COVID relief funds set aside under the US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. , commonly referred to as CARES.

“Some arts organizations are saying the pandemic has been the best year they’ve had because they got all that cash flow from the federal government,” Spencer said.

Once theaters reopened in late summer and fall 2021, relief money began to dry up. But the expected influx of moviegoers with a pent-up thirst to watch movies on the big screen never happened.

“It’s just a very, very slow comeback,” Gibson said. “We didn’t expect this year to be as difficult as it has been.”

It is not unusual for an organization to announce a “temporary hiatus” in times of financial difficulty and simultaneously express its determination to develop a viable financial plan for the future. Unfortunately, not all of these troubled organizations are resuming their activities.

For example, the Contemporary, a once-loved museum that opened in 1989, made an upbeat statement in 2017 after announcing it was laying off its remaining staff. When asked if the museum still has a future, Board Vice Chair Debra Rubino replied:

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“Absolutely. Without reservation.”

The Contemporary has not mounted any exhibitions or programs in the past five years, and a note on the organization’s website indicates that the museum’s archives are now housed at MICA.

But Spencer and Gibson said they were determined the promenade would avoid the contemporary’s fate.

“We wouldn’t be talking to you today if we didn’t have a vision for a better future,” Spencer said.

“Our vision is that one day soon there will be lights on the street, people on the street, eyes on the boardwalk. There will be some form of operation in our building for 10, 12 hours a day.

“People will tell their friends about something they came to see in our theater with neighbors and with people they didn’t even know were neighbors that became part of their Baltimore experience.

“That is our aspiration and our hope.”

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