The executive director of the Maryland Film Festival said Monday that the organization “had no other choice” but to close the Parkway Theatre, less than six years after the historic venue was rehabilitated and reopened.
“People may think we had other choices but we really didn’t,” Sandra L. Gibson said. “This is the result of the enduring pandemic.”
The Banner reported Saturday that the Parkway will scale back operations in early 2023, and pause its screenings and programs to find a new sustainable model for the film festival, which they hope will return for its 25th anniversary in 2024. Ten staff members — three full-time and seven part-time — have been laid off.
In an interview on Monday, Gibson and board chairman Scot Spencer said the board is in the early stages of restructuring the organization to make it sustainable. They will hire consultants and solicit community input on the future of the organization while the Parkway remains closed.
They said there are currently no plans to sell the building.
“In order for the building to work, we have to make sure that the community actually wants to be a part [of it] and partner inside the building,” Spencer said.
But as the pandemic has eased, audiences never returned. Gibson said paid attendance this year is only at about 10,000 people, compared to about 34,000 in 2019. Many others attended free programming at the Parkway with the help of grant funding.
There had been signs the organization was struggling. Last month, it announced the cancellation of the 2023 festival, and those who did buy movie tickets at the Parkway recently likely noticed few people in the theater.
“The board really decided that what’s best is that we take some time and see the best way forward for the building and the organization,” Spencer said.
While the screenings and programming will end — at least temporarily — the Parkway still has a contractual obligation to the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art to let their students use the space for film screenings and media education.
In 2017, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation assisted the film festival with the purchase and renovation of the Parkway Theatre located at 5 West North Ave. The theater had been in and out of use for years.
It’s unclear how the closure might affect the neighborhood. Earlier this month on WYPR’s ”Midday with Tom Hall,” founding director of the festival, Jed Dietz, said that the organization was aware they were a part of an effort to “reinvigorate the area.” The theater hosted classes for students and invited filmmakers to give talks, in addition to screening first-run and indie movies, Dietz said.
About 20 people The Banner spoke with Monday afternoon in neighborhoods near the Parkway said they had never seen a movie there before. But those who had said they were disappointed the movie theater would soon stop screening movies for the public.
Alex El Dahdah, who lives in the area and is studying for an MFA at MICA, said he’s watched three free movies there on Thursdays over the past few months. The movie theater had featured Iranian films as a part of their World Cinema Café series, and he enjoyed going to see them.
The theater, he said, felt like one of the few community spaces left for film and cinema, he said. There are places for other types of art, such as galleries — but not for filmmakers like himself where they can celebrate that work, he said.
”I think this should be a wake-up call for funders or those donating, to find more ways to keep these places open,” said El Dahdah, who works on short films and ”mockumentaries.”
Filmmaker Joe Tropea said that he, too, felt that the theater was a community film center. He remembered meeting up with other documentarians in the lobby as a part of the Baltimore Documentary Lounge. Every single film he’s made has been screened at the Maryland Film Festival.
He has been involved with the festival for over a decade as a member of the screening committee and a presenting filmmaker. “Getting to see a historic building renovated was really great ... feels like we’re losing all that momentum,” he said.
The Parkway is still under contractual obligation to provide space to Johns Hopkins University and MICA students, who use the space for screenings. The theater manager will be kept on staff to keep the building up-to-date and in working order.
Ideally, the theater will return to be a “vibrant community asset,” Spencer said. But right now, they’re more focused on planning for a sustainable future.
When Gibson joined the team as interim executive director in September 2018, her goal was to implement a strategic plan that would optimize the festival and the Parkway Theatre.
“We met all the targets but then the pandemic hit,” she said.
In November 2019, Gibson was officially named executive director, only for the theater to close months later.
“When we first shut down we thought we would open in January of 2021 but the indoor venue restrictions didn’t really allow us to open until August ... that’s almost a whole year lost,” Gibson said.
She also noted that the industry has changed so much that the film festival’s strategic plan needs to be revised. According to the original timeline, 2023 would be the year those goals were realized.
Banner staff writer Cadence Quaranta contributed to this report.