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Raising the Curtain: Opening a Business in a Pandemic

Jun 05, 2020 5 min read Zina Kumok

In March 2020, the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie was set to open on the east side of Indianapolis. It was going to be the first art house cinema near the city's downtown, with a European-inspired restaurant run by a James Beard Foundation-nominated chef, Abbi Merriss.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, forcing the Kan-Kan to delay its opening. We spoke with Daniel Arthur Jacobson, the Kan-Kan's programming director, about opening a small business during a global health crisis — and how to keep potential customers engaged and excited for the future.

 

 

When did the coronavirus first disrupt your plans to open?

We were aware of the situation in early March, but no one brought it up as possibly affecting us. We were supposed to have a soft open on March 12 and March 13. We didn't start talking about the possibility of closing until March 16, so things ramped up very quickly.

 

What changed? Did everyone at the Kan-Kan agree to postpone the opening?

A couple of us were reading more about [the pandemic] and were kind of more aware. But by Thursday and Friday of that week, I think everyone was on the same page because you started seeing things getting canceled around town.

Liability was a huge issue. We have insurance, but no one knows how a pandemic affects it, because no one's really dealt with this. We asked our insurance agent, and learned we're definitely not covered for a pandemic. It just made sense for us to make the call.

 

How did you feel when you had to make that decision?

All of March was building up to the opening. There was a lot of anxiety, but we'd been working on this for years; we were so excited.

It was a weird feeling when we had to postpone. There was a lot of disappointment. But at the same time, you could see the whole community and the whole world kind of changing their ideas on how we socialize.

We'd read about Seattle and New York having a huge influx of [COVID-19] cases, so the idea of getting 800 members through the door in the course of one weekend sounded like a scary thing to do. And so there was a weird sense of relief.

Then, once it sank in that opening was going to take a lot longer, there was a lot of disappointment. But there was also a pivot — the recognition that that we needed to make the most of this. We weren't open yet, so people didn't have any expectations. We could now pivot easily and be more flexible, so we've tried to do that since.

 

What are some things you've been doing to stay engaged with your members?

We're lucky to be in a field where things are streamed online. A lot of independent distributors have given cinemas the option to host films directly through their websites; the cinemas that host those films actually get the revenue.

Since the shutdown, we've been able to switch digitally: We have a Kan-Kan On-Demand page where you can rent films, and it's the only place you can watch them. We've actually received some proceeds on top of that.

We've also been hosting free content. We know this is a tough time for a lot of individuals, so we want to offer that. We've been doing an "at-home cinema" on Friday nights, where everyone presses "play" on a Netflix or Amazon Prime film at the same time, then everyone logs onto a Slack channel, and we have a conversation about the film.

We've also been posting a "short of the week" to highlight local filmmakers and the work they've composed, particularly during the shutdown.

 

What do you think the future of cinema looks like? How will Kan-Kan fit in?

The film industry right now is tough to navigate because not only are cinemas shut down, but they're pushing everything back that was supposed to be released.

If we were to say, "Hey, let's open right now," we would have some films to show. But [after that] we would not have anything because the flywheel has stopped.

I see that certain states are opening up, and movie theaters are part of that, with seating only at 50% capacity. But I really don't know how people are going to make overhead with that. A lot of times, distributors aren't even going to want to show films to a half-packed house.

So you're often stuck only showing old classics. Searchlight Pictures, which is owned by Disney, is offering a package deal of some of their favorites, like "Napoleon Dynamite." They're offering very low rates for cinemas during this time if you're open.

 

So, what's the plan for the Kan-Kan?

If we do open up, it's going to be very spotty at first — we're going to have to show classic films or films that have already been shown.

It's going to be interesting when we actually can start showing new films again. But we're holding tight for a while. We're definitely not going to jump the gun.

Footnotes

Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. She has written for the Associated Press, Indianapolis Monthly and more. She also writes a blog about how she paid off her student loans in three years.

 

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