Since 1912, The New 400 Theater in Rogers Park has closed for a long period of time twice — once in 1918 because of the Spanish Flu and now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the building’s owner, Tony Fox.
After closing its doors in March due to state-wide stay-at-home orders, The New 400 (6746 N. Sheridan Road) has gone through multiple phases in trying to generate revenue, from asking for donations to selling popcorn and alcohol on the patio. Now, the local theater is renting out its space for events and private showings.
“You bring your own movie — we don’t have to pay the royalty, we’re off the hook altogether — you’re just renting a space with a big projector,” General Manager Scott Holtz said.
Holtz has been the only employee of The New 400 since July. Twelve part-time employees were laid off in March, according to Holtz.
The fee to rent the space for two hours is $200, with options including projecting customer’s movies and video games and accommodating private parties and school groups, according to its website.
More than two dozen have rented the space since The New 400 advertised the deal Sept. 17, and every weekend and some weeknights are booked through December, according to Holtz. Customers can apply through the theater’s website.
With only selling concessions and alcohol on the patio for the past few months, Holtz said The New 400 isn’t doing as well as they had hoped.
“We need to generate about $3,000 a day,” Holtz, 58, said. “I’m lucky some days to generate $300.”
The New 400 considered opening for Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in September but realized they would lose money between royalties and recent movies going straight to streaming services. Holtz also feared audiences would be hesitant to return.
“You’d be in a closed box for three hours with a whole bunch of strangers,” Holtz said.
To clean the theater, Holtz said he uses a sanitizing fog in addition to regular procedures such as mopping and vacuuming.
A survey conducted by analytics firm Performance Research and Full Circle Research Co. revealed that 13 percent of moviegoers would feel comfortable going back to the big screen, with 70 percent preferring to stay home.
The theater needs $3,000 to break even, but Fox isn’t worried about the business’ future. The 52-year-old has owned the building since 2007 but because he received Payment Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) loans, the theater is not paid off anymore. Fox said between surfing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions and raising children, he’s not easily scared.
Despite moviegoers being out of habit, renting out The New 400 can help alleviate some of the customers’ “pent up demand” in a safe way, according to Fox.
When the theater reopens and shows new releases, The New 400 plans to offer showings for dogs and their owners, welcome bands and have readings. The theater might only have private showings and be an event space, according to Holtz.
“Movies are just a commodity,” Holtz said. “I need to get your attention at the concession stand and I need to get you to come back into this building again. The movie’s a benefit, I don’t make any money on the movies.”
Community outreach is crucial for Holtz and Fox. Last year, Rogers Park and The New 400 banded together to show “Queen & Slim,” The Phoenix reported. In June, the theater collected and distributed supplies for protestors and going forward, Holtz plans to show more support for the LGBTQ community.
“I hope everything we do sends a message of inclusivity and tolerance and peace,” Fox said. “We were the home base for the protests in Rogers Park. I was very proud of that. That speaks to what a centralized force we are in the community to bring people together like that.”
Fox hopes to reopen as a first-run movie theater in March 2021 — and survive another pandemic — but is waiting for an available widespread vaccine and new movie releases.
“I think The 400, as well as the movie business in general, will have its best year ever,” Fox said. “It’s going to be blockbuster after blockbuster.”
The theater is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.