The film industry has faced an endless stream of unprecedented challenges because of the coronavirus: Movie theaters have had to reduce public showings and private rentals, temporarily closing down to keep people from spreading COVID-19. Film studios have had to push back their biggest blockbusters or settle for releasing them on streaming platforms.
Even with similar setbacks, the historic Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff has managed to go forward with some bold plans for expansion. The downtime has given its owners and operators time to actually make it happen, they say.
"When COVID hit earlier this year, I was like, ‘How do we maximize our future here since we're basically down?’" says Barak Epstein, the theater's founder and co-owner of its partner company Aviation Cinemas. "So when the world shut down, we put it into high gear again."
The Texas Theatre announced on Wednesday its plans to turn its long vacant balcony into a 160-seat auditorium with a second screen and a VIP mezzanine. The project has been in the works for the last five years and in planning stages since the end of March, when the theater closed to the public.
"A lot of places are just hibernating out of necessity, and we're doing a little bit of that as well, but we were like, 'How do we make the most of this when we come out of this with increased capacity and we have all these things we wanted?'" Epstein says. "Let's maximize this downtime."
The downtime forced the theater to come up with new ways to offer screenings in a safe environment with avenues like its online screening option and Sunset Drive-In Theater, located in the parking lot behind the building along Sunset Avenue, with as much staff as possible. Epstein says that the operational changes, along with loans and tax credits, also allowed them a way to save money to fund the $1.9 million expansion project.
"Basically, we're trying to save money by not operating," Epstein says. "We started our drive-in and things like that but we had to make a scenario to our banks that this was a long-term play. This wasn't 'Let's solve everything in 2020.' It's, 'How do we create long term sustainability here?'"
The Texas Theatre is also a historical landmark on city, state and federal levels thanks to its beginnings in the 1930s as Dallas's largest suburban theater and as the site of Lee Harvey Oswald's arrest in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Starting new construction on a building that's under historical protections isn't as simple as hiring a contractor and demolishing a few walls.
"We have the trifecta of historical designations," Epstein says with a laugh. "We have to talk to all three for different reasons. We're using the state's historical tax credit program, which helps get financing done to do our work."
The new space is scheduled to be completed sometime in the spring next year and will turn the theater's balcony into a useable space for the first time in 40 years. Hopefully, the theater will be able to safely open then to audiences aching to finally see a movie that's not screened on their TVs, mobile phones or tablets.
"We're going to be able to do more of everything people like: more movies, more live events, comedy events, rental opportunities, more of everything, basically," Epstein says. "In a lot of ways, we're going back to the theater's original usage in the '30s and '40s."
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