In this edition of the Catalyst Partner Series, we check in with John Bell, longtime CEO of the historic Tampa Theatre in downtown Tampa. We’re also joined by Henry Gonzalez, Beach Bank’s Tampa Bay market president.
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s been a tough year, to say the least, for the arts and the venues that support artists and performers. Tampa Theatre last held an in-person event March 11. “We learned pretty quickly that being closed is not good for the business model,” Bell says. Some 65 percent of the theater’s gross annual revenue comes from earned income, he adds — meaning box-office receipts, bar and concession sales, and rental fees. As of March 12, he adds, “that’s all off the table.”
Bell, who’s in his 35th year with the Tampa Theatre, says the venue quickly adapted, working with film distributors to stage virtual screenings of films. “We also figured out how to do a virtual beer fest fundraiser that raised probably $10,000 to $15,000.”
Unfortunately, the numbers didn’t quite add up and some part-time theater staff had to be let go – but the venue’s 13 full-time employees stayed on, although pay cuts were instituted. “So far, we’ve been able to survive,” Bell says. “We’re looking at a reopening, in a limited way, in early January.”
Being shut down for close to nine months hasn’t been entirely unproductive, Bell says. It gave the theater a window of opportunity to overhaul its 94-year old heating and cooling system, to the tune of $500,000.
Bell has also taken notice of how the pandemic and its aftershocks have already fundamentally altered the business of movies. Warner Bros., for example, controversially announced that its 2021 slate of films would be released simultaneously in theaters and the HBO Max streaming platform. The move drew the ire of acclaimed filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve, who tend to direct big “tentpole” blockbusters that drive crowds to multiplexes. And movie theater chains, already struggling under Covid-19 restrictions, can’t be happy about the decision, either.
Bell, however, sees a silver lining for unique venues like the Tampa Theatre, which has diverse revenue streams and a carefully preserved historical character that simply can’t be matched by modern cinemas.
“We are not a multiplex; we are not AMC or Regal,” Bell says. “We are uniquely positioned to adapt and survive. We can change our programming and pivot to more classics if we need to, or push in more live events, rental events, community events. I’m not concerned about the Tampa Theatre once we get past the pandemic. It’s just getting us past this point to the other side … that’s the management we’re having to deal with.”
Beach Bank, as a community bank, prides itself on working with grassroots, locally focused organizations like the Tampa Theatre. “It’s not just about donating dollars,” Gonzalez says. “What community banks do best is get involved.”
Gonzalez is living proof of that philosophy, having served for eight years on the Tampa Theatre’s board of directors.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “I joined as a self-professed art idiot, and I left with a unique appreciation of the movie business and how to run a philanthropic organization that had earned income but also relied a great deal on donors.”
Bell, Gonzalez adds, has passed the pandemic leadership test with flying colors, but it takes more than one person to make it through a crisis of the magnitude that venues like the Tampa Theatre currently face.
“We as a community have to get behind our arts organizations,” he says, “especially the Tampa Theatre, to make sure that when the time comes and things open, we are all supportive of their new mission, whatever that may be. If not, we’re going to lose some true treasures, going forward.”
As a community bank, we invest in the future of the communities we serve. At BeachBank, lending money is only one way we invest in our communities; we support many local organizations with donations of our resources and time.