Circle Cinema is reopening this week, and it is going to great lengths implementing new health-and-safety measures to make its guests feel comfortable enough to come back to the movies.
On Friday, June 26, the nonprofit historic art-house theater is welcoming back its 3,000-strong Circle Cinema members exclusively for one week through July 2, and it is showing just one film.
The following Friday, July 3, the theater opens to the public, and it will still be showing that movie: “Run With the Hunted,” Tulsa native John Swab’s crime thriller that he shot in the city a couple of years ago, as well as a documentary about Civil Rights leader John Lewis.
As the weeks progress, more movies will be scheduled, and more people will return to the cinema — and to chain theaters like AMC and Cinemark, which are holding off until July to open — if they feel comfortable in doing so amid an ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
If the safety guidelines that Circle Cinema has implemented were a movie, the title might be “Overkill” in some people’s opinions. And that would be fine with a staff that’s been preparing for this day — and getting paid, too — since theaters were ordered closed in March.
“The seating is assigned for social distancing. The person who touches any money will never touch your concessions. There’s been deep cleaning throughout,” said Greg Younger, theater manager at Circle Cinema.
“It was the kind of cleaning that found rice behind the screens that was probably from our first annual ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ night,” he said of the theater’s New Year’s Eve tradition of more than a decade, which encourages audience participation — like rice throwing during the opening wedding scene.
Making your way from the theater’s front door to your seat in an auditorium won’t be too complicated, but it will be different.
Each operation in that process has been segmented to the degree that a guest will encounter multiple employees, beginning with a greeter at the door, who will tell of the requirement to wear a mask and offer one if a guest has not brought one.
The greeter will then lead guests to the line to buy tickets at a window inside the lobby with a plexiglass shield, where you can slide a credit card for a touchless purchase or pay with cash.
Cash is then placed under an ultraviolet light’s magnetic radiation to kill germs before that bill is placed inside a cash drawer.
This spot is also where guests will purchase concessions by placing an order that pops up on a screen at the usual concessions counter, where yet another employee will fill that order behind a new plexiglass divider.
Guests then proceed to the entrance between auditoriums No. 1 and No. 2 (the only ones open to start with and only to 25% capacity), where they will speak to an usher who will give directions on finding your seats.
Inside the auditorium are “pods” of seats, two or three in number. They can be found in between other seats that have a small version of a black seat cover on them to indicate they are unavailable.
Even for Circle Cinema regulars who have been attending for years, the process “is so different that we decided to go overboard” with guests potentially speaking with as many as four masked employees before finding their seats, Younger said.
Need hand sanitizer? There are at least eight stations hanging up on the walls, between theaters and everywhere else as you enter.
“Let’s just say that it’s available. Let’s just say that if you bump into one of our walls, you are liable to get sanitized,” Younger said.
With its indie films and documentaries, Circle Cinema caters to a more mature clientele than the multiplexes, and these regulars should make for a good “soft opening” crowd in the first week.
That maturity might also help make the process go smoother, if there is any indication from the one-day opening last week on Juneteenth for free showings of “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”
“Everyone I saw come in was wearing a mask,” said Clark Wiens, co-founder of the Circle Cinema Foundation, of those attending the Juneteenth screenings.
“I’d say that showed they were educated, they are cognizant of the situation, and they care about other people.”
In support of the Black Lives Matter movement and ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to Tulsa the next day, the theater was chosen by Magnolia Films to be the first in the country to show the documentary about Lewis, the Congressman from Georgia.
It’s the kind of event that members have come to expect from Circle Cinema, which has actually seen its membership numbers grow during the months it has been closed, Wiens said.
For “not-yet members” wishing to visit the theater beginning this weekend, an annual $50 single or $90 dual membership offers $3 off regular admission on films, a free movie in your birthday month, free popcorn on Mondays, member appreciation events and more.
Circle Cinema’s membership increase has come from those simply making a donation to those buying gift memberships.
“People wanted to show their support for the Circle. They don’t want this to go away,” said Wiens, who months ago had said the theater would only reopen when the community is ready.
He said he believes that time has arrived — maybe not for everyone and maybe not for good.
“We’d never do anything to hurt the community. We may find out people aren’t ready to come back to the theater yet, but hopefully we can move on, we can get a vaccine, and our community can come back together.”
In the gallery area, where works from local artists usually fill a giant wall, the space is empty. Even more noticeable is that the tables and chairs where Circle regulars often congregate before and after movies are gone.
“Any potentially enticing opportunity for people to bunch up together has been temporarily removed,” said Younger, who along with his staff has tried to consider all pandemic possibilities that should be prohibited.
“We are planning so many great events, but this probably isn’t the year that you will see them,” said Wiens, referring to special occasions like the Circle Cinema Film Festival, which has become a high-profile showcase in its first two years.
He thought of events to come as he recalled the night that a Leon Russell documentary, with the Tulsa music legend in attendance, filled every auditorium.
And he recalled one of the Circle’s early anniversaries for a famous battle, showing a documentary about the fight with veterans on hand to speak — and with many young people in attendance who kept talking as the film started.
“But then it gets quieter and then still quieter and then ‘hear-a-pin-drop’ silent, and by the end of the movie, people were standing and cheering for these men,” Wiens said, with a tear in his eye and a smile on his face.
“That is the power of film. I’ve seen it so many times that I know it’s real, and that’s what we want our community to experience again when it’s safe to do so.”