Independent movie theaters find creative ways to survive

Innovative programming, reduced prices attract audiences.



It’s probably no surprise that movie theaters are among those businesses hard-hit by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Happily, some theater owners and managers are finding creative ways to survive.

A perfect case in point is The Neon, Dayton’s independent movie venue located in Dayton’s historic Oregon District. Manager Jonathan McNeal says it’s been a real challenge getting audiences back into the theater after re-opening following the pandemic closure. He has yet to see attendance rebound. “In 2022, our attendance was at about 55 percent of numbers in 2019,” he notes.

While McNeal’s non-profit theater had always been known for special events – film festivals, screenings hosted by grassroots organizations, local artists premiering their work – he began to notice targeted showings were becoming a valuable tool for success. The response to a special November screening of the restored tribute to George Harrison entitled “Concert for George” led McNeal to book more films designed to attract specific audiences.



Happy customers

Allen Braga of Russells Point says he and his girlfriend, Becky Jarvis of Clayton, have always been moviegoers. They returned to The Neon as soon as it reopened after the pandemic but have found themselves heading to the little theater more with the addition of the special showings.

“The special showings have definitely increased our attendance,” Braga says. “The last couple of months we’ve been averaging at least twice a week. Jonathan has a wonderful knack for picking a variety of interesting things and when there’s someone doing a talk-back after the film we always take part.”

The couple bought tickets for the sold-out Pride screening of “1946: The Mistranslation That Shifted Culture.” “It’s about the mistranslation of the Bible by a group that interpreted something as being against homosexuality that has had reverberations ever since,” Braga explains. “We check out the weekly email so we know what’s on the horizon. We try to squeeze in anything that looks interesting, which is most everything. The Neon has such a unique and wonderful vibe and we like supporting it.”



Some examples of The Neon’s targeted screenings:

  • In partnership with the Dayton Art Institute, The Neon has been offering films focused on famous artists followed by short talks by the DAI’s chief curator, Jerry Smith. Produced by Exhibition On Screen, the documentaries have been consistent sell-outs with titles like “Hopper: An American Love Story,” “Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman” and “Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition.” Next up is “Frida Kahlo” on Sunday, Aug. 13.
  • “Oklahoma!” The Musical Starring Hugh Jackman (restored 1998 production) is being shown today and Wednesday, July 19.
  • National Theatre Live’s productions are filmed on stage in London. Thus far, Dayton has seen Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” In order to continue booking these top-notch plays, says McNeal, 75 tickets need to be sold at each screening. He was happy to tell last week’s audience who attended a 4 p.m. screening of “Good” that the 75th ticket for that show was sold at 4:02 p.m. Good news for theater-lovers!
  • Focused documentaries such as “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis.”
  • Music docs like “Carole King Home Again: Live in Central Park,” “Eric Clapton: Across 24 Nights” and “Little Richard: I Am Everything” where The Neon had the third highest gross in the country. “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust - restored for the 50th Anniversary, will be shown on Sunday, July 23. “Have you got it yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd” is slated for Sunday, July 30 and Wednesday, Aug. 2.

Slashing prices

Single-screen theaters like the Englewood Cinema and The Plaza Theatre in Miamisburg are attracting customers by offering inexpensive ticket and concession prices. Both regularly charge $5 and get first-run movies at the same time they’re being shown at the multiplexes. One recent example is “Spider-Man Across the Spider-Verse.”

Englewood advertises $3.50 on Bargain Tuesdays and thanks to the Miamisburg Moose Lodge, The Plaza has a 25 cent Saturday matinee at least once a quarter.

“Studios are taking an average of around 65 percent of our $5 ticket so it’s important that people buy concessions!” explains Englewood’s owner Alyssa Floyd. “A family of five can still come see a movie and get snacks for less than $50 – that’s something. And our extra large bag of popcorn is just $6.” In Miamisburg a Kid’s Basket (drink, candy and popcorn) is just $3.50.

Because the Englewood Cinema has a bigger theater space and a lower rental price than many franchise theaters in the area, it has become a popular spot for field trips for schools in the Miami Valley. The theater has also hosted screenings for middle school students who couldn’t attend annual Washington, D.C. trips.

Family fun

Englewood’s Cory Floyd says single screen theaters can add a lot more personality to the movie experience. “A fun thing we have recently started to create more of a family fun event is that we have started pajama night and costume night on opening weekends for movies where it seems appropriate,” he says. “We had so many families dress up during Mario and most recently whole families dressed up together for Spider-Man. It’s been really wonderful to start that and see how families are really taking to it.”

The Plaza has always been known for showing old and classic films so when the non-profit theater received a $2,500 grant from Culture Works in 2021, board president Doug Sorrell came up with the idea of creating a “Century of Cinema” series. Twice a month on Wednesdays, the focus is on a theme or a particular actor. In addition to the featured film, there’s a 15-minute PowerPoint narrative showing related posters, film clips and photos. Sorrell did the talk for the first year but has since added 16 first-time presenters from across the Miami Valley. In the future he’s planning to invite high school journalism and film students to participate.

And the movie theater is collaborating with the University of Dayton’s Osher Lifelong Learning Center for a class entitled Century of Cinema.

The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs was closed for over a year and a half after COVID-19 hit. “During that time, we lost our ability to earn revenue, and our contributed revenue dropped by over 60 percent,” says Katherine L. Eckstrand, acting executive director. “All staff were laid off and the board took over operations. Fortunately, we received a Shuttered Venue Operations Grant as part of the Federal Rescue package, which continues to help us build our programs and audience.”

In 2022, the Little Art’s contributed revenue increased to 70 percent of pre-COVID-19 contributions and Eckstrand says they are on track to do as well if not better this year. “Attendance to date in 2023 is at 68 percent of pre-COVID attendance, up from a low of 38 percent in 2021,” she says.

Some of the ways they are bringing audiences back:

  • Free outdoor drive-in movies in July.
  • Themed Thursday Throwback Series with films from the ‘80s and ‘90s with themes such as Best Picture Snubs during Oscar season, School’s Out, and an Adventure Series with films such as “Jaws,” “The Princess Bride” and “E.T. "
  • Saturday “Family Flicks” series in July and August.
  • Rentals for events for everything from a marriage proposal and bridal shower to kids’ birthday parties and memorial services. Other public rentals have included a Celtic concert by Four Shillings Short, a free showing of films by Caesar’s Ford Theatre.
  • Free public showing of “Wakanda Forever” with 365 Project for Juneteenth and a mini–Pride Film Fest with YS Pride featuring the Ohio premiere of “Out in the Ring” and “Little Richard: I Am Everything.”

Says Eckstrand: “We are offering additional ways to connect with movies such as a live Q&A with the star of the film ‘Monica’ and a private showing of the first three episodes of the Amazon series “Jury Duty” with a welcome by Alan Barinholtz, who played the Judge and was a former president of the Little Art Board.”

McNeal says some folks might ask why the special screenings are so limited. Some of the special events have a specific date requirement and others don’t have wide enough appeal to play 15 times over the course of a week. “We’re open 365 days a year with traditional programming,” he says. “But in addition, we now have special screenings once or twice each week!”

Local independent theaters

Englewood Cinema

320 National Rd. #21, Englewood

Little Art Theatre

247 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs

Plaza Theatre

33 S. Main St., Miamisburg

The Neon

130 E. 5th St., Dayton

About the Author