Opening a new business in the middle of a pandemic might seem risky at best, foolhardy at worst. But Mike Hazlett, who launched the independent Green Light Cinema in October, believes in his product – an intimate, all-digital movie house with a 17×8 screen dedicated to art films, classics and indies – and he believes the audience is out there. So, Covid or no Covid, if you build it, they will come, right?
In the beginning, Hazlett says, “We knew that it was going to be a huge left. There wasn’t any expectation that we were going to be talking any kind of ticket sales. And that came true!”
There’s nothing quite like settling into a darkened theater, with a hot bag of popcorn, and experiencing a talked-about or highly-anticipated film with a group of like-minded cinephiles. Green Light Cinema (221 2nd Avenue N) is, by design, not for those loud blockbuster superhero movies.
But how to make it pay in these troublesome times? Although the screening room has room for 80 seats, Hazlett installed just 50, with the rows spaced six feet apart.
“Right now we sell 25, which is kind of the CDC recommendation,” he explains, “fifty percent of capacity. In the state of Florida right now, I could probably sell them all. But one of the things I did learn is Covid is still with us – I don’t care how many vaccines we’ve done – and people still want to feel that it’s a safe environment. So we’re managing the capacity upward, but we’re doing it incrementally, and slowly.”
At one point in the fall, just 15 people were allowed in per showing. “It was about trying to coax people into an environment where they could feel safe,” says Hazlett.
“We were averaging about three people a night. The first four months were not good, because we were selling so few tickets that I wasn’t even paying for the films.
“At one point, the film distributor IFC offered us this thing called the Theater Revival Project, where they basically gave me content for a month. Which was awesome. Boyhood, Frances Ha, classic indie stuff, which was great, but we weren’t selling any tickets there either.”
Green Light Cinema, he says, has a “vigorous” social media campaign, along with an emailed newsletter announcing the upcoming schedule. “I think what the issue is, frankly, is people have been locked down for a year and they’re in their own lane. When you start something like this, it’s from the ground up. You’re building an audience.
“And that takes time in the best of times. And the best tool you have is word-of-mouth. It’s hard to get word-of-mouth when you’re getting three people a show, or whatever.”
The tide began to turn in February when Green Light presented the locally-made suspense drama Fear of Rain. The film, starring Harry Connick Jr., Madison Iseman and St. Pete resident Eugenie Bondurant, was screened 14 times. Each was a sellout.
Next came Academy Award contenders Minari, Nomadland and The Father; starting next week, the theater will feature Oscar-nominated shorts, documentaries and foreign films.
On screen this weekend is Shiva Baby, writer/director Emma Seligman’s acclaimed comedy about a free-spirited, bisexual young Jewish woman, Danielle, facing her extended family during an awkward shiva at her Aunt Sheila’s house.
“I think our programming has been really great,” offers Hazlett. “People love the space when I can get them in here, and a lot of them are coming back.
“So at this point it’s ‘Let’s get everybody vaccinated and let’s get to full capacity.’ Because the other part of this is that we want to do one-off classics, or one-off specialty films, or like ‘Hitchcock Thursdays’ once a month.
“The problem is, if I go out and get a copy of Vertigo, and I can only sell 25 tickets and we’re only doing it for one night, I can’t sell enough tickets to pay for the movie. We’re going to do that stuff; we’re just not there yet.”
The growing pains of those first months hopefully behind him, Hazlett is optimistic that he’s building an audience for something that St. Petersburg desperately needs.
“Now we’re seeing who’s coming on the weekends, who’s coming during the week, what films do better than others … that’s part of the growth arc to something like this,” he says.
“And it’s almost like we’re just kind of starting, right now. And with 40 percent of where we’ll be when we have full capacity.”