ATHENS, GA – When first arriving outside the doors to Ciné, the entrance appears like an average ticket booth, but upon entering the double doors the atmosphere transforms into that of a dreamy and timeless movie theater.
Brigitta Hangartner first opened Ciné, Athens’ only independent art house cinema, in April 2007, and ever since it has been a key part of Athens.
Hangartner started Ciné because she thought that Athens needed an art house theater, especially since the closest ones were in Atlanta. The response from the Athens community was immediate, with the theater being packed for the first few weeks after opening. The turnout has been consistent ever since, other than during the pandemic.
According to the 2019 Athens Film Arts Institute Annual Report, Ciné sold 35,000 tickets and had 740 members, while showing 300 films and events throughout 2019.
However, it took a while to get there, and a few years after its opening, Hangartner realized it was hard to make money, especially when it came to competing with other local movie theaters.
To combat this, in 2012, the theater was turned into a non-profit to be run by the Athens Film Arts Institute. People can both donate or pay to become members to help fund the theater.
Over the years, Ciné has been heavily involved with the Athens community and has created a strong presence.
“There’s really a lot more community partnerships going on I think than maybe the average person in town knows,” says Kate Fortmueller, who has been on the board of directors for the Athens Film Arts Institute since early 2020.
Ciné works with local non-profits like Nuçi’s Space, whose mission is to prevent suicide, and other local health organizations to show documentaries on important topics like addiction and mental health.
A large focus of Ciné is its educational outreach, focusing on bringing artistic and cultural educational opportunities to the local community. Ciné goes to local schools to give lectures. They also host panel discussions, and have special screenings for students. For example, they coordinated with local businesses so that children in marginalized communities in Athens would have the opportunity to see the movie “Black Panther.”
Their educational outreach had just started to develop before the pandemic but has been at a standstill since then.
“That’s an area we really have to build upon again, those kinds of things were just starting to get developed and then came to a halt,” says Dr. Richard Neupert, the president of the board of directors of the Athens Film Arts Institute.
The theater has even worked with multiple University of Georgia departments, showing movies, and hosting panel discussions. There even is a lab space in the building that they rent out for lecture series, poetry readings, and musicals, among other things.
Neupert says there are not many towns in Georgia that can support an art house like Ciné, and that UGA is a big part of their success with many faculty, staff, and students coming to the theater regularly.
Ciné had multiple goals set for 2020. They were going to try to create a third theater and enhance their educational events, among others, but all of that came to a halt when COVID-19 hit. Consequently, Ciné along with many other theaters across the country closed its doors.
“It shut down everything. Kemp allowed for an earlier reopening than other states in the US. But it doesn’t really matter if you’re allowed to open if there are no movies,” says Fortmueller.
Many studios began to push back the release of their movies, so even if some theaters were open, there was not much to show. Movie theater stocks took a massive hit and even though major movie theater chains had a better chance of surviving, smaller, independent theaters like Ciné were faced with more uncertainty.
At some points, the Athens Film Arts Institute was not fully sure about what Ciné’s future might be.
The theater started streaming movies and had a few limited screenings in fall 2020 to stay connected with its members during the pandemic. They also rented out their theaters to small groups of people earlier this year, but it was not until this past summer that they opened their doors again.
In June, they started a drive-in with much success, showing older, iconic films. The drive-in continued into October and more events like this are in the works, with a potential holiday special coming in the future.
Beginning in September, Ciné started to require full proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of the screening start time along with their existing mask requirement. While other theaters across the country were also starting to do this, Ciné wanted to ensure that both their staff and audience members were as safe as they could be.
Ciné has finally seen more audience members in the past couple of months, especially since more movies are being released and people are starting to get more comfortable being in a movie theater.
“It was good to be back, but it’s still a bit worrisome to be around people inside at this time. But I expect to be coming back often,” says Nina Hellerstein, who has been a member of Ciné for five years.
According to Variety, box office revenue still has a ways to go compared to pre-pandemic sales, but ticket sales have been gradually increasing since May.
Art houses specifically have also been struggling. According to The New York Times, even though it’s a little early to assess the reopening health of art house cinema, there have already been signs of demand and a build towards pre-pandemic levels of business.
In the future, Ciné plans on expanding more with communities and cultural events. They want to focus more on the use of their lab space for more performances, but they will continue to be a movie theater first.
“We’re still always going to be a movie theater…I think the cinema is here to stay for 10 years. They’ve been saying that cinema is going to die and it’s changing a little bit. But I think it’s still here especially in an arts town like Athens. We’re going to be fine,” says Neupert.