Do you miss watching weird shit in the dark with strangers? The Beacon does too.
Do you miss watching weird shit in the dark with strangers? The Beacon does too. Courtesy of The Beacon
Last week, Governor Jay Inslee announced that movie theaters in Phase 2 counties could legally reopen at 25 percent capacity. While many Seattle-area movie theaters like SIFF, Grand Illusion Cinema, and Northwest Film Forum have decided to stay closed for the time being, others like the Admiral Theater in West Seattle and AMC are venturing into these uncharted Phase 2 waters. Columbia City's tiny arthouse cinema The Beacon is among them.

Founded by Casey Moore and Tommy Swenson last July, The Beacon had not even been open a year before the pandemic hit. Seven-plus months of a government-mandated shutdown would generally spell doom for a small cinema, and yet not only has The Beacon been able to pay their bills, they also have continued to pay their four-person staff throughout the pandemic. This unexpected success was possible mainly because of the ongoing work of High Council, The Beacon's sister company, which does marketing design for feature films and television.

The nimble, tight-knit Beacon crew say they collectively decided to reopen to Seattle moviegoers this weekend after considering Inslee's latest updates. "It was a matter of feeling good about not being forced into making this decision," Swenson told me this week.

The 25 percent capacity mandate allows for about two people per row, or 12 people total in The Beacon's single theater. They plan on only hosting two showings a day, spaced at least three hours apart, to make time for thorough cleaning and air recirculation. Masks will be required at all times as the state requires, except for when you're shoving snacks down your throat.

They've also carved out space each week for private movie rentals for people who don't quite feel comfortable breathing the same air as strangers after all these months. "We feel pretty confident that it's as safe as anything else you're going to do in the world right now," said Moore. 

The months off also allowed them to work on projects that they couldn't get to when they first opened. So, in addition to making improvements to adhere to state reopening requirements, the revamped Beacon also includes better soundproofing, an upgraded lobby with new lights, a rearranged lounge, and the addition of a second bathroom.

Moore said they are "ever closer to the movie theater of our dreams." Beer will still be on tap. Staff will safely serve popcorn. And there are new, giant tubs of plants out front, along with trellises that have jasmine growing up them.

Previously, The Beacon had focused their efforts on curating a fun and obscure selection of movies, emphasizing radical perspectives. That's staying the same, and they told me they're doing a series of "mystery movies" where patrons only get a short, vague description of what they're about to see: Best One-Armed Revenge Double Feature, Best Australian Gothic Horror Movie, Best Movie About Teenage Girls Starting a Band, and so on.

Moore said they hope this approach will create more excitement. It also fits their brand. "We feel like in the time that we were open, The Beacon did a pretty good job at carving out an identity of showing cool offbeat deep cuts, weird stuff, fun movies," said Swenson. "We want to make sure that we don't just come back and show Back to the Future... We want to keep The Beacon cool."

Both Moore and Swenson emphasized that their decision to reopen The Beacon came out of a deep-seated belief that people should experience movies in a movie theater. Though they weighed setting up a streaming site like other smaller venues have done (with success, I might add), they ultimately decided against it. Instead, The Beacon will focus on this new era of screening movies IRL.

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"[Hollywood is] not going to work [film distribution] out in a way that prioritizes movie theaters, so it's really going to be on independent venues to reimagine what the future is going to be in terms of screening movies," he said. "We're super excited to be a part of building what that's going to be."

And, as Moore notes, they're just testing the waters with their reopening.

"We're not committing to anything," he said. "We're seeing how this goes."

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