Even though he knows it’s only for the time being, it pained Brandt Gully to close the doors of the Springs Cinema & Taphouse after all the hard work that went into opening them.
Gully bought the independent movie theater in 2017, then poured more than a year and $2.5 million into its renovation before opening for business in February 2019.
After a career spent in finance, working adjacent to the movie industry, Gully wanted to create a place that was centered around community. And the model has been working.
“We've gotten a great response and been super busy,” he said of the cinema.
But by mid-March, the coronavirus outbreak had reached Georgia with an undeniable force and Gully found himself in the same difficult spot as many other small business owners in metro Atlanta and beyond: figuring out what owning a small business looks like amid a global pandemic.
In some ways, it’s an especially complicated question for “non-essential” business owners, like independent movie theaters, local playhouses and concert venues — the places people gather on Friday and Saturday nights to shell out a little cash in exchange for entertainment.
Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s the first thing to go in the orderly existence mandated by a pandemic.
On March 17, before it was required by local officials, Gully decided it was time for the theater to temporarily close.
“All of a sudden just to close the doors and put a sign on the door saying, ‘we're closed indefinitely.’ It was tough,” he said. “While I don't believe it's true, in a way it felt a little permanent.”
While other businesses, like restaurants and fitness facilities, transition to new models, theaters of all kinds are largely left to wait out the storm.
For now, Gully’s staff has shrunk from 55 employees down to himself and two managers. The rest have been furloughed. He doesn’t expect to re-open his doors until sometime in June, at the earliest.
But still, Gully is confident his business will bounce back, despite some concern in the industry that people will become accustomed to watching movies at home.
“While this is obviously a disappointing and scary time for us all, I have no doubt we will emerge stronger from this,” Gully wrote in a letter posted on the theater’s social media accounts. “Hopefully you and your families stay safe and healthy and enjoy some quality time together.”
The importance of health and family is something Gully knows all too well, and it’s ingrained in his business.
“The best thing that people can do for us is to do their part in getting us all back to a place where we can get out of the house and go back to the things we love doing, including, enjoying movies and creating memories with friends and family,” he said.
Amid the hardships, Gully is also thinking of ways to give back to causes near to his heart. He plans to soon start selling growlers of craft beer that the theater has in stock to raise funds to help families currently dealing with childhood cancer.
He started this business to help his community and this is just one way he can do so right now until the doors re-open. And when they do, they’ll be ready, he said.
Elsewhere in metro Atlanta, locally owned playhouses are also grappling with having to close up shop for the time being.
Places like Stage Door Players in Dunwoody, which has been closed since March 18 when the city mandated it.
“Unfortunately in times like these the arts are one of the first things to become a luxury and not a necessity, and not the thing people have the extra funds to afford,” Robert Egizio, the artistic director at Stage Door said via email. “This can be devastating to small to midsize companies, especially when big chunks of their programming can't be presented. There are expenses, salaries, royalties that have to be paid even if the show doesn't go on.”
Along with other venues throughout the city, Stage Door co-signed a letter to theater goers asking them for their support amid the outbreak.
“We can make it through this together, but local theatres need your support to help weather this storm,” the letter read in part.
Like other local theaters, Stage Doors is accepting donations online and Egizio says support from the community has been strong so far.
The theater only has a couple of full-time employees and while they were able to make payroll for April, Egizio is unsure of what the future holds. They haven’t had a live performance since February and while they’ve been able to hold some rehearsals via Zoom, it remains to be seen when they will get to return to the stage.
“I am hoping we can resume production in May, and get us back on track in some good standing,” Egizio said. “It's gonna be tough, very tough, but I have to keep the faith that our loyal subscribers and other partners will assist in seeing us through.”
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