Mulling around the Paramount Theatre for the opening night of the 49th Annual Seattle International FIlm Festival (SIFF), there was already a buzz in the air for the showing of Celine Song’s upcoming film Past Lives. This would become a roar when SIFF’s executive director Tom Mara announced the organization had acquired the famed Seattle Cinerama theater from the estate of the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. The venue has been closed since February of 2020 when all staff were dismissed and the screen went dark.
“We can’t wait to see you, your family, your friends, your coworkers, film lovers from all over the world in this cathedral of cinema,” Mara said in prepared remarks on Thursday.
Many details still remain unknown, but SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett provided some additional information in an interview with The Stranger on Friday about when doors will open once again.
Yes, she said chocolate popcorn will be back and the plan is to include other local snacks at concessions, but no, the theater won’t be open for the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, as some had guessed following the announcement.
“It all depended on when we were able to reopen and how fast we thought we could do that—July is just a little too fast,” Barrett explained. “Oppenheimer in 35 mm is still coming to Seattle, it’s just going to be in the beautiful Egyptian theater and not in the Cinerama.”
One of the other unknowns is about selecting a new name for the theater. Under the agreement, the old one will have to go. Barrett said they will proceed with the community in mind in the months ahead.
“Once the dust settles on some of the *gestures wildly* kind of feelings, absolutely. SIFF is here for the community and we really value the input the community has. I can’t speak for exactly how that is going to be, but I know that the process of finding a new name for the Cinerama is going to be iterative and it's going to have community buy-in.”
As reported by Crosscut, the timing of the opening comes down to how long it will take to staff up. Barrett said she isn’t aware of how many will be hired or if current employees will work at the Cinerama.
“Obviously, we are planning on maintaining the great level of service and that movie palace experience that we all so dearly miss,” Barrett outlined.
In regards to SIFF staff, The Stranger reported on Thursday that employees are still looking for a contract over issues like wages after having walked out last year and formed the SIFF Cinema Workers Union (SCWU) earlier this year. They also had recently launched a GoFundMe page at the end of March, saying they needed to raise funds for paying legal fees associated with the effort.
For Shaun Scott, a member of the Campaign Workers Guild and a lobbyist for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, these recent events hung over the acquisition announcement of the Cinemera. In a post on Twitter Scott made Thursday night, he said he’d “be more excited about this if SIFF management was doing right by workers as they attempt to unionize” and argued that “putting cash towards property acquisition while the workers who make these theaters run go without a fair contract isn’t right.”
In an interview Friday, Scott said that “as a film lover, I wish I could feel a lot more excited about the news,” but he believes “people who have union backgrounds, who care about organized labor, who care about worker rights, have to really think critically about what it is that they’re celebrating.”
“This is going to be a theater that is going to have a lot of enthusiastic participants,” Scott added. “Whether people know it or not, they’re going to be dependent on organized labor to have a pleasant moviegoing experience. It’s an unfortunate juxtaposition, I think, to see a huge property acquisition like that and all the excitement and celebration that comes with it then you have to imagine how it must feel to be an actual worker for SIFF right now.”
When offered the opportunity to address these criticisms, Barrett spoke positively about the currently ongoing negotiations, though she did say that there was no time when they anticipate settling on a contract.
“Well, we are really proud to recognize the SCWU and their efforts at unionization and really excited to work on the next steps about what that looks like for the future,” Barrett said. “The process of unionizing and negotiating will take as long as it takes so that everybody feels like they're heard and that we can find a terrific ground between us. So there is no set timeline on what those negotiations will look like because we definitely want that to be a conversation.”
For Barrett, the Cinerama is about providing opportunities to engage with art and also potentially bringing in filmmakers to show their work as part of an experience unlike anywhere else in the country this year.
“The building is so iconic and the screen is so iconic and that there is really only three of the in the world—one in the UK and then the two here with the Arclight down in Los Angeles looking at reopening in 2024,” Barrett said. "To be the only operating Cinerama in the country this year is a huge opportunity to get those film-loving directors who want to be present and to help celebrate film history and film culture. People are going back to the movies, they’re going back to the arts. There is so much hope and so much belief in this rebirth.”