By John H. Glenn
In the early fall of last year, the minds behind the Sidewalk Film Festival unveiled the first
independent cinema in Birmingham.
The 22-year-old festival, dreamed for decades of having a location to call home, eventually raised enough funds to purchase a space in the lower level of The Pizitz building downtown. In less than a year, however, the newly opened cinema, like the rest of the city, was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We decided that we were going to be closed for two weeks,” said Kiwi Lanier, Sidewalk’s education and interim marketing coordinator. “That was our game plan because saying that you’re indefinitely closed sounds really ominous.”
It wouldn’t be until early summer that Gov. Kay Ivey lifted the state-wide shutdown, allowing cinemas across Alabama to open back up for business. However, the team at Sidewalk chose to hold off on reopening until this month.
“We knew that if we reopened, we would have to be very cautious because obviously, people [at this time] are only going out for groceries or things that they have to do,” Kiwi said. “So we knew that we wanted to take an abundance of precautions, just to show people that we were taking it seriously — the last thing we want to do is put anyone in danger to see a movie.”
This “abundance of precaution” manifested in a series of impressive health & safety improvements to the independent theater; showcasing how much the Sidewalk staff wants patrons to enjoy the cinema safely.
“We installed these new air filters in our air conditioning system that help purify the air. We installed touch-less fixtures on all the toilets, so you don’t have to touch the toilets anymore. We have hand sanitizer stations everywhere. If you come into the facility while we’re open, your temperature has to be checked. And you’re required to wear a mask anytime you’re in a common space.”
Creative Sources Photography
For each of the 100-person capacity theater rooms, now only a maximum of 12 people are allowed. That way, each person can sit while remaining six feet apart. Assigned seats are sold in pairs, so couples can sit next to each other, but also individually, that way you don’t have to sit next to a stranger if you don’t want to. The seating arrangements themselves change after each screening, so the same seat is not used again for a 24-hour span.
“A lot of people have been saying ‘you could probably fit more people in here’,” Kiwi said. “I think we’re happy with the way things are going right now.”
Although the cinema itself is held below its usual capacity, the outpouring of gratitude and thanks directed at Sidewalk seems to balance, at least in spirit, the cost of operations.
“I monitor social media channels so I’m usually answering questions or responding to people, and most of the comments I’ve seen have just been ‘I felt really safe’ and ‘thanks sidewalk for doing this,'” Kiwi said. “People are happy to have something fun to do out of the house and that we’re taking their safety seriously.”
Edited by: Diane Mwai, Ryan Michaels & Alivia Moore