The Maryland Film Festival is pausing all screenings, programs and events at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theatre in early 2023, noting that attendance has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In an email on Friday addressed to friends and supporters, Sandra Gibson and Scot Spencer, executive director and chair of the Maryland Film Festival Board of Directors, respectively, wrote that the move allows the nonprofit organization to develop a new business plan with the help of consultants.
Like many businesses, the Parkway Theatre had to cease operations at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and faced capacity restrictions as state and local governments loosened mitigation measures. Meanwhile, the cinema launched a virtual theater to stream new movies.
“After a difficult few years, we fully reopened the Parkway Theatre in 2022, excited about the promise of audiences returning and our future as a vibrant hub for film and media,” Gibson said in a statement. “The slow economic recovery, challenges and changes in the film industry, and shifts in movie-going habits have thwarted our efforts, despite extraordinary initiative from our team.
“We are disappointed that we need to pause this work, but understand the decision and the importance of developing a plan that will support our community and the passions of artists and audiences,” she added.
In a statement, Spencer said that “this isn’t just about numbers.” Instead, he said, it’s about a building, neighborhood, organization and mission.
“We have brought moving art and a community service in a beautiful venue to the people of Baltimore, with people who are from, and of Baltimore,” Spencer said. “Our question is how we continue to do all of those things given the time, circumstances, and environment we find ourselves in.”
The pause comes several weeks after organizers of the film festival announced that it would take a hiatus in 2023, citing the “lingering effects” of the coronavirus pandemic as well as “evolving filmgoing habits.” The board of directors also stated that it was necessary to spend the next few months coming up with a “revised business model and plan.”
The statements references a reduction in staff, but it’s unclear how the recent decision affects employees at the Parkway. Employees approached by The Baltimore Banner on Friday said they were not authorized to discuss operations.
Speaking earlier this month on “Midday with Tom Hall” on WYPR, Jed Dietz, founder of the Maryland Film Festival, pointed out that several businesses around the Parkway Theatre have closed.
“We know we’re a key part to reinvigorating the area,” said Dietz, who announced his retirement in 2018. “We want to do it right. And I think we’ve got a good mission.”
Because of streaming, Dietz said, there is “some question about how many movie theaters there should be in North America.” But the Parkway, he said, is more than a regular movie theater, noting that filmmakers and students come in throughout the year.
He said the nonprofit organization had hired a marketing firm, which conducted a study and determined that the theater could reach a certain level of ticket sales. “We were not there when I left, and it’s gotten worse since then,” he said.
Dietz declined to discuss the future of the theater with The Banner.
The Banner also attempted to reach current and former board members and employees of the Maryland Film Festival for this story.
The historic theater, at the corner of North Charles Street and West North Avenue in the Station North Arts District, first opened in 1915. But by 1978, the last iteration of the movie house, 5 West, closed, and the property fell into decades of disrepair.
The Maryland Film Festival acquired the property in 2016 from the city. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a private, international philanthropic organization, provided the lead $5 million gift toward an effort to renovate the theater. The Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art were partners in the project, with the goal of providing space in the rehabbed theater for film students.
Ziger/Snead Architects, a Baltimore-based firm, led the restoration, which involved cleaning and restoring the façade as well as building a white cube-like structure on an adjoining site.
Inside the main auditorium, crews removed some parts of past renovations and kept original historical features as they sat, leaving the main hall in a state that Ziger/Snead Architects describes as “rescued ruin.”
The renovated Parkway Theatre reopened for the opening night gala of the 19th annual Maryland Film Festival on May 3, 2017.
The main auditorium seats 414 people. Two smaller theaters each hold 85 people.
During the last five years, in addition to serving as the home of the Maryland Film Festival, the Parkway has operated as a first-run theater for both indie releases and Hollywood blockbusters. And the movie house has hosted revival screenings, including an ongoing series featuring “Black Christmas,” “Tokyo Godfathers,” “Gremlins” and “Tangerine.”
A handful of musicians have used the theater as a concert venue, such as local indie rock group Snail Mail and the Baltimore-rooted experimental pop band Animal Collective.
Arts and culture reporter Imani Spence, investigative reporter Justin Fenton, breaking news reporter Cadence Quaranta, education reporter Liz Bowie and breaking news editor Brandon Weigel contributed reporting to this article.