The Parkway Theatre is in danger of becoming the Baltimore arts community’s first major casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, as theater operators have canceled all film screenings indefinitely after Jan. 1 and laid off most of its staff in an effort to stem the financial drain.
Three of the Parkway’s six full-time staff members and all eight part-time staff members were notified Friday that they will lose their jobs in early 2023, executive director Sandra Gibson said.
Film screenings and other public events, such as concerts and hall rentals, also will cease after Jan. 1, though Gibson said the Parkway will still be open for film students attending classes at its two institutional partners: Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Spokesmen for those schools could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The first indication for local arts lovers that the Parkway was in trouble came last month, when the board of directors announced it was canceling the 2023 Maryland Film Festival, which has run annually since 1999.
Gibson and Scot Spencer, chairman of the board of directors, said they hope that a stronger Parkway, an institution on a firmer financial footing, will reopen some time in 2023.
“Nonprofits have been operating in a very different environment since the pandemic,” Gibson said. “It’s been brutal. The board decided to hit the pause button so we could come up with a new business model and figure out how to deploy our resources before the time comes when we no longer have that opportunity.”
Gibson said that the Parkway’s paid attendance was 34,000 in 2019, the year before COVID-19 invaded Maryland and shuttered arts venues statewide. For the year ending Dec. 31, paid attendance is projected to be 9,800 — a 71% decline. Revenues during the same period are expected to drop about 52%, she said.
The Parkway’s most recent federal form 990, a tax form filled out by nonprofit organizations, lists total expenses of $1,522,175 for 2021, and total revenues of $1,234,515, resulting in a $287,660 shortfall.
The problems at the Parkway echo a global decline in moviemaking that has persisted even after cinemas have reopened. The Motion Picture Association reported in its 2021 Theme Report that ticket sales worldwide last year were just half their pre-pandemic level of $42.3 billion.
“It’s obvious to everyone in the arts community that there has been this seismic shift in habits because of the pandemic,” Spencer said. “Movie theaters are seeing fewer and fewer audience members. Fans are increasingly moving towards streaming films. I don’t think anyone in the industry has figured out yet out what brings people out and what keeps them home.”
When the ornate theater with its Italian Renaissance-inspired facade opened 107 years ago, the Parkway seated 1,100 patrons and boasted an organ, an orchestra and a cameraman capturing local news.
During the next half century, the Parkway experienced several reversals of fortune and by 1978 had closed its doors for good. The theater had fallen into disrepair by 2012, when the Maryland Film Festival acquired the building from the city of Baltimore.
Following an ambitious, $18 million renovation, the theater reopened in 2017 with great fanfare and amid glowing predictions it would help revitalize and stabilize the corridor near Charles Street and North Avenue.
Then-Mayor Catherine E. Pugh declared at the grand opening that the Parkway would become “an economic engine … for this part of the city.”
Once the excitement had died down, theater operators had to figure out how to run a theater in a niche market, a theater that showed independent and foreign films and that by the 21st century lacked whatever name recognition the Parkway had once enjoyed.
“People come into our building all the time and ask what we do here,” Spencer said.
In September 2018, the board of directors adopted a strategic plan aimed at breaking even in five or six years. That plan provided for “a slow, steady audience growth” through 2023, Spencer said. Financial forecasts were built around the expectation that the Parkway would generate 48% of its operating revenue through ticket sales, hall rentals and other forms of earned income, with the remaining 52% coming from public grants and private donations.
Gibson was hired as executive director in November 2019.
“It’s fair to say that for all of 2019, we were pretty much on track and on our way to meeting our financial goals,” Spencer said. “And then the pandemic hit, and overnight we were in a completely changed environment.”
The Parkway responded by becoming one of the first theaters in the nation to offer virtual film screenings, Gibson said. And for a while the institution was able to pay its bills with the help of generous donors and COVID relief funds set aside under the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, commonly known as CARES.
“Some arts organizations are saying that the pandemic was the best year they had because they got all this cash flow from the federal government,” Spencer said.
Once the theaters reopened in the late summer and fall of 2021, the relief money began to dry up. But the expected influx of moviegoers with a pent-up thirst for watching films on the big screen never occurred.
“It’s just been a very, very slow return,” Gibson said. “We didn’t anticipate that this year was going to be as hard as it has been.”
It’s not unusual for an organization to announce a “temporary hiatus” during tough financial times and to simultaneously express a determination to come up with a viable financial plan for the future. Unfortunately, not all of these troubled organizations resume operations.
For example, the Contemporary, a once much-loved museum that opened in 1989, made an optimistic pronouncement in 2017 after announcing that it was laying off its remaining staff. When asked whether the museum still had a future, then Board vice chairman Debra Rubino said:
“Absolutely. Without reservation.”
The Contemporary hasn’t mounted any exhibits or programs in the past five years, and a note on the organization’s website said the museum’s archives are now housed at MICA.
But Spencer and Gibson said they are determined that the Parkway will avoid the Contemporary’s fate.
“We wouldn’t be talking to you today if we didn’t have a vision for a brighter future,” Spencer said.
“Our vision is that someday soon, there will be lights on the street, people on the street, eyes on the Parkway. There will be some form of operation going on in our building for 10, 12 hours a day.
“People will be telling their friends about something that they came and saw at our theater with neighbors and with people they didn’t even know were neighbors that became part of their experience of Baltimore.
“That is our aspiration and our hope.”