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With events cancelled and the work of volunteers paused, local theater nonprofits are finding new ways to connect with the community and calling on donors to help them outlast the pandemic. These organizations are figuring out their next steps — whether planning how to reopen safely in person, navigating a new world of online content, or waiting the pandemic out.
In the first 80 days since closing, the Paramount lost about $700,000 in gross revenue and cancelled or rescheduled about 100 events.
“Seven hundred thousand dollars in gross revenue is a lot, even for a theater that’s been operating a balanced budget, and thankfully had some reserves,” said Chris Eure, the executive director of The Paramount. “Those reserves are being inched away.”
With a recent layoff, the Paramount went from a full-time staff of 20 to a full-time staff of 13. With the theater dark, they’ve lost the assistance of more than 100 active volunteers as well.
“It was really devastating,” Eure said. “The other part that breaks our heart is all of the nonprofits that use our venue to raise money for their efforts. A lot of those have had to cancel, so they’re going to be out of fundraising efforts.”
“Like so many nonprofits in the area, we have cut all of our costs down to the bone,” said Maran Garland, The Paramount’s marketing director. “We’ve made conscious efforts to be able to do that so that we can be ready to reopen the doors after. We definitely are looking to the community for support to help make that happen. The community has helped before, and we’re hoping they’ll help us reopen those doors again when the restrictions are lifted and we can safely distance for an event.”
Sixty-two percent of the Paramount’s budget normally comes from operations — events, ticket sales, rentals, concessions — while 38 percent comes from philanthropic support. With barely any operations revenue, Garland emphasized that community donations will be more important than ever in helping the theater survive.
The Paramount plans to reopen with Phase 3 of the governor’s plan for reopening Virginia. They plan to begin with movie screenings with ticket sales capped at 100, socially-distanced assigned seating, reconfigured concessions, and contactless ticket scanning.
In the meantime, Garland has led “Stream the Magic of the Paramount,” a page on their website where patrons can stream a mix of paid and free content. The Paramount is working with Exhibition on Screen to stream material from past seasons, and new films are available weekly through a partnership with Magnolia Pictures.
“That is a very small revenue-driving effort for us,” Garland said. “It’s really more about just being able to bring some of The Paramount’s magic to our community until we can safely gather at the theater again.”
Additionally, Garland worked to organize Charlottesville’s Got Talent, an online talent show and competition. The winner of the competition will be invited to perform their talent at a Paramount event once the venue can safely reopen.
Eure noted one exception to cutting costs: they have decided to keep the Paramount’s blade and marquee lights running.
“They’re not inexpensive to run, but we just couldn’t turn those lights off,” she said. “I think it’s symbolic for a lot of the Charlottesville area, and to make that blade go dark would just break our hearts.”
By early April, with the cancellation of shows and workshops, Live Arts had lost about $410,000 from their budget — about 40 percent of their expected income. Additionally, Live Arts benefits from the help of 1,200 volunteers each year, most of whom can no longer participate.
However, the nonprofit is bouncing back quickly. Between donations, pledges, and a Payroll Protection Program forgivable loan, Live Arts has raised $215,000 of their $250,000 fundraising goal to close their income gap by June 30.
“We are well on our way to closing that income gap, in part because we reinvented how we did things,” said Anne Hunter, the executive director of Live Arts.
As cancellations began, Live Arts quickly did everything they could to reduce expenses. All staff took a pay cut. They then started to reimagine their future.
The group shifted their workshops and summer camps online. They also plan to hold live performances of their teen musical, In the Heights, outdoors this summer.
Throughout May, Live Arts ran a 30 Plays in 30 Days program — a retrospective theater festival with new content livestreamed every night. The festival averaged 450 viewers per night, with sometimes over 1300 viewers in a single night. While the festival was initially not intended to be a fundraiser, it raised about $50,000 toward the June 30 fundraising goal.
“We learned how to do [online content] and what’s engaging and what’s not, and how to get through the snafus of the technology and all that kind of stuff. So we’re better prepared to use the technology to do something really engaging in the fall,” Hunter said.
Live Arts is already planning to have a mostly-online season this fall, where viewers subscribe for new content. “That will allow us to continue to make art, share art, engage people, keep people safe, and not have to worry about how to do physical distancing in a very small space,” Hunter said.
“We say physical distancing, not social distancing, because we’re trying to promote social connection in the face of physical distancing,” she added.
Hunter noted that Live Arts may draw more from local playwrights in the fall, due to copyright laws that would prevent them from sharing many widely-performed productions online. Their program Locally Sourced already works with local playwrights to develop new works.
“We’re changing the way we think about how we program,” she said. “Not forever, but for as long as the tail of COVID-19 continues to snake through our community.”
While using social media to maintain a dialogue with their supporters, Charlottesville Opera has chosen not to produce online content, said David Newkirk, the board president of Charlottesville Opera.
“If we’re going to say, Charlottesville Opera gives you the unmatched experience of live opera, for us to hang too much on technology, which is flat and intermediated — I think that undermines our positioning,” he said. “Watching opera on your computer is different than watching it live.”
Charlottesville Opera indefinitely postponed all events for their upcoming season, and Newkirk expects they may not perform again until next summer.
Each summer, Charlottesville Opera’s artists come from around the world and are housed with local hosts. With the risk of COVID-19, this transportation and housing seemed impossible to Newkirk. Additionally, half of the Opera’s ticket buyers are 65 or older, and Newkirk doubts that these patrons would attend a performance, even if the opera tried to figure out the logistics. Newkirk explained that since they are a virtual company, without a physical space, they’re in better shape financially if they don’t put on an opera this season.
Newkirk said he worries more about performing artists during this time than about the company itself.
The company paid the artists about half of what they would have received for the summer. Charlottesville Opera could have legally ended virtually all their contractual obligations, which included about $150,000 in artist salaries, Newark said.
“Our patrons wanted to support our artists,” he added. “We felt it was the right thing to make an ex gratia payment to help these artistic gig workers survive.”