The University of West Alabama’s college cinema prepares for a long-awaited reopening

For two years, the University Cinema in downtown Livingston existed not as a movie theater, but as a time capsule of life just before the pandemic shut down most of the world.

College Cinema in downtown Livingston before it closed due to the pandemic. (University of West Alabama)

On March 15, 2020, student film workers from the University of West Alabama greeted moviegoers for that night’s film: “The Call of the Wild,” starring Harrison Ford. They sold tickets. They were selling popcorn and drinks. Before leaving, they cleaned up the concession stand, swept the floors, and got ready for the next night’s show.

UWA’s cinema, however, has been bleak ever since. Jason Gardner, the university’s director of student activities, is eager to welcome patrons back to the 90-seat theater – and he will this spring, once a motherboard for the computer-controlled projector arrives. of Belgium and that he will hire students to run the place.

Gardner has occasionally crossed over to the movies during the pandemic. “It was scary,” he said. The clock was basically frozen. Dust, like spring pollen, covered everything. Old movie posters decorated the wall: ‘Trolls 2: World Tour’, ‘Antebellum’, ‘I Still Believe’, ‘Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway’ and ‘F9: The Fast Saga’. Items employees innocently left behind — drinks, for example — remained in place.

Outside, the overhead marquee still read ‘CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE’. On the sides of the main entrance remained two posters. One featured a “Trolls 2” print. The other was empty.

“The first time I came here, I walked out,” said Gardner, who oversees student employees and is the theater’s booking agent. “I was like, ‘Everything is the same.'”

Posters of 2020 films on display at the University Cinema, including “The Call of the Wild”, the last film screened before COVID-19 closed the theater doors in March of that year. (Phillip Tutor)

Growing concern for slowing the community spread of the coronavirus and the guidelines imposed by Gov. Kay Ivey’s Safer at Home order have upended most public activities in Alabama this spring and summer. In addition to temporarily closing the cinema and halting on-campus events, UWA has moved to online-only classes, faculty and staff have started working from home, and many students living in university accommodation have left campus.

“It was a crazy time,” Gardner said.

This particularity makes the reopening of the university cinema all the more important for UWA students and the residents who frequent it. Spring not only brings warmer weather and outdoor activities, but it ushers in a semblance of normalcy from the heights of the pandemic.

Although the theater is UWA-owned, UWA-operated, and staffed by UWA students, it is a public theater open to all, which fuels Gardner’s pride. It’s not unusual, he said, for patrons or church groups from Alabama’s black belt to drive 45 minutes or more to Livingston for a movie.

“We hope they want to experience it,” Gardner said. “That’s what we want to offer here, a good experience in a small town.”

In that vein, filmmaking is as much a community activity as it is a student activity, he said. But its importance to the student experience at UWA — a public university in a rural Alabama county — should also not be ignored.

When the opportunity arose more than a decade ago to buy the cinema, “we started looking at it from an academic angle,” Gardner said. “So to be able to recruit kids to come here and keep kids here, we have to help be part of the city and try to provide experiences. So it’s a very different aspect.

The concession stand at the university cinema. The UWA is carrying out a deep cleaning of the theater in preparation for its reopening. (Phillip Tutor)

Preparing the university cinema for its reopening required more elbow grease than technical assistance. Besides repairing the computerized projector, the main task was to thoroughly clean everything: the concession stand, the lobby, the toilets and the theater itself. Gardner said he spent hours inspecting the facility, getting his hands on items looking for those that needed repair or replacement.

Because the theater is owned by the university and not part of a national movie chain, Gardner often doesn’t know which movie he’ll be showing until Monday of each week. National premieres require longer weekly stays and take larger financial percentages from theaters, which limits college cinema profits and the variety of films shown each month.

The goal, Gardner said, is to show a different film each week instead of a national premiere for two or three consecutive weeks. When the cinema reopens, screening times will remain at 7 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday. UWA students can enter for free once a week.

“We’ve got it all to give you the experience you’ll get anywhere else, and that’s our goal,” Gardner said. “If you go back and look at our social media, people are talking about us there: ‘I love this little theatre. They treat me well. We want to give a Chick-fil-A experience or a Disney experience to Livingston in a movie.

This story originally appeared on the University of West Alabama website.

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