When the Ritz at the Bourse concluded its 30-year arthouse run in January 2020, regulars and staffers gathered on closing night to commemorate the end of an era. But hold on — turns out there’s going to be a sequel.
The Philadelphia Film Society has negotiated a new lease with property owner MRP Realty, spent roughly $750,000 to renovate the five-screen site, and plans to reopen the facility sometime in May as the PFS Bourse, with the same kind of specialty fare that screened at the Ritz at the Bourse and perhaps more mainstream content mixed in.
PFS will staff the Bourse with workers from the Roxy, which was shuttered by the pandemic and will not reopen as a PFS facility. It plans to keep the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard operating indefinitely.
Film Society CEO and executive director Andrew Greenblatt said PFS has installed new digital projectors (a new 4K laser projector in the biggest, 200-seat auditorium and 2K versions in the four smaller rooms, seating 130 to 160 patrons apiece) and new sound systems (Dolby 7.1 across the board). They also made some interior renovations, including new carpet, concessions area, and escalators.
“My hope is for a mix of the traditional Bourse-type titles — American independents, foreign films, features documentaries — mixed with some studio fare, the prestige studio fare, the type of stuff that goes up for awards contention, that’s a little more artistically heightened,” he said.
Greenblatt said the PFS’ Film Center, 10 blocks west on Chestnut Street, will open a few days before Memorial Day, probably with A Quiet Place II and Cruella. He said those titles will likely also play at the PFS drive-in at the Navy Yard, an exhibition venue created during the pandemic.
The society resumed its Navy Yard screenings in March after a winter break. Godzilla vs. Kong and Mank are playing there now, with Mortal Kombat and Feels Good Man set to open Friday.
A coveted venue for PFS
Greenblatt said PFS has long coveted the Bourse and began hustling to secure a new lease the day that Landmark Theatres, operated by Cohen Media Group, pulled out last year.
“This was built to be a movie theater from the ground up,” said Greenblatt, whose other properties were repurposed to accommodate film. The flagship Film Center was originally a performance space.
He said the Bourse’s “enormous” projection booth and high-ceilinged screening rooms, with angled seating and good sight lines, provide excellent bones for the renovated space.
The new projection equipment and multiple screens give PFS the crucial flexibility it needs to make its business model work as pandemic restrictions ease, he said.
“It might be that initially we don’t have five different films. It might mean we have two or three films and we’re playing them in multiple theaters,” he said. At 25% capacity, PFS can spread out patrons among the 700-plus aggregate seats at the Bourse, piping one movie into multiple theaters, and make the numbers work.
By contrast, the Roxy, with its two 70-seat rooms, could not profitably be operated at 25% capacity, he said.
The pending return of the Bourse and the Film Center run happily against the grain of what’s going on in arthouse markets in many places. The ArcLight and Pacific theaters, for example, have recently closed in movie-loving Los Angeles. The specialty exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse has sought protection under Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to operate during the pandemic.
Landmark curtailed operations during the pandemic in several major cities. In Philadelphia, it is now showing in-person movies at the Ritz Five and offering streaming selections through both the Ritz Five and Ritz East websites.
Elsewhere in the region, the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville has stayed doggedly open through much of the pandemic, and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute has just reopened. The Ambler Theater, the County Theater in Doylestown, and the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown are hoping for openings Memorial Day weekend or the first week of June, according to Christopher Collier, executive director for the group that operates all three.
PFS will now have nine total screens in Philadelphia — the five at the Bourse, two at the Navy Yard, and two at the Film Center. The nonprofit society is able to use its subscriber base and foundation support to make projects like the Bourse renovation possible, investments that Greenblatt believes will be validated, even in the face of encroachment by streaming services.
The growing prominence of “day and date” releasing, with movies opening on streaming platforms the same days as theaters, will not quell the in-theater moviegoing habit, he said.
“We believe in the future of exhibition. We believe that even if you can watch something at home, people are still going to come out,” said Greenblatt, who cites the classic/repertory content that sells well at the Film Center.
PFS has an ongoing relationship with Netflix, which has partnered with the PFS Navy Yard drive-in to exhibit movies like The Prom, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Midnight Sky, and had allocated films like The Irishman to the Bourse in its previous incarnation.
“If there’s something on Netflix, we’ll do a one-night special and it will sell out, so we know it works,” Greenblatt said — PFS did so last year with Rolling Thunder Revue.
The PFS Bourse will eventually return to offering midnight screenings, a favorite of Bourse fans, but that’s down the road, he said.
The Bourse had been the local venue for the occasional Rocky Horror Picture Show extravaganza, but Greenblatt isn’t sure if that particular title will return. He’s just fixed up the place.
“I love Rocky Horror. I grew up watching Rocky Horror. But I also know what it can do to a theater,” he said.
The property’s owner, MRP Reality, said in a statement it is pleased to have a new operator for the theaters. “The rich history of the Bourse theater aligns well with PFS vision of the space,” said Charley F. McGrath, MRP managing director, in a statement.