Alternative cinemas in Amsterdam hit hardest by coronavirus restrictions

A special screening in 16mm film at Filmhuis Cavia. Photograph: Filmhuis Cavia

Cinema of the Dam’d, a small alternative cinema inside OT301, was forced to close for good in September because of financial issues worsened by the coronavirus restrictions. The cinema, run entirely by volunteers, had already launched a crowdfunding campaign last year when their financial situation became unsustainable.

“It is with sadness that we announce the permanent closure of our cinema. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and related financial crisis have made it impossible for us to operate a safe and sustainable public space,” reads a Facebook note from the cinema dated 21 September, which received hundreds of reactions.

The ongoing coronavirus restrictions have made things more difficult for the world of alternative cinema in Amsterdam. With budgets that were already tight, many smaller theatres with more niche offerings are hurting from a fall in ticket sales, with some even closing their doors for good. Local fans of art-house films are now being left with fewer options for anything besides Hollywood productions and streaming services.

When infection rates in Amsterdam dropped over the summer, theaters were able to reopen provided they follow social distancing guidelines, including strict limits to audience numbers. Now, in some cases fewer than half of full capacity can be filled for each screening. That means fewer sales of not only tickets, but also drinks, a crucial source of income for alternative cinemas, some of which were hardly breaking even before the pandemic.

Marius Hrdy, a member of the close-knit management team at Filmhuis Cavia, says that their cinema has only been able to stay afloat thanks to special pandemic subsidies and that the way forward is unclear. The local Amsterdam government offers some help, says Hrdy, but his cinema has mostly had to help itself.

“They’re not reaching out to us. No, that’s not happening,” says Hrdy. “You have to make yourself heard otherwise you go under. They don’t care.”

He noted how difficult it has been to find creative solutions while still making ends meet. Filmhuis Cavia is no longer able to rent their space out. What was once a vital source of funds in normal times is now an impossibility for the foreseeable future.

“We have so many ideas. We want to make this happen. But of course, the more ambitious the ideas, the more they cost. We need some income and we want to be inclusive. And from 5 euros … we can’t go up to 10 euros. It doesn’t work. Then we’d need to upgrade the whole system to the level people expect when they go to the Pathé.”

The potential disappearance of alternative cinema from Amsterdam is in line with the unfortunate trend of hyper-gentrification and commercialization that’s been rapidly transforming the city in recent years.

“Most of the locations I work with have been working really hard for decades to resist isolation and build up a sense of togetherness,” Jeffrey Babcock wrote in one of his weekly newsletters at the beginning of the pandemic.

Babcock organizes screenings in a diverse set of venues around the city. He mostly screens rare and under-appreciated films and aims to not charge admission, whenever possible. He laments the hit theaters have recently taken and is worried about the social effects of prohibiting gatherings in a society already diseased with individualism and loneliness.

There’s a sense that a source of cultural diversity is in danger of being lost. In an increasingly expensive and competitive city, it’s hard to imagine that these theaters would be able to open again if they are forced to close. The cinemas that are most at-risk of closing their doors are those that show films that are either too rare or controversial to be screened elsewhere.

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