When Atlas Atlantic Cinema co-owners Jacob and Rylea Anderson decided to host a “popcorn pop-up” outside the theater to benefit their local food bank, they didn’t expect a big turnout. Then came the crowds.
“We started popping popcorn about 1pm. The pop-up wasn’t till 6…[and] we went through all the popcorn we had made by like 6:15,” Jacob tells Boxoffice Pro of the theater, which is located in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa in the southwest corner of the state. By the end of the evening, the married couple had sold 315 buckets of $6 popcorn and raised over $2,000 for the Atlantic Food Pantry (an amount that includes matching donations from the Andersons for a portion of the proceeds).
Though offering curbside pickup of concessions is far from an anomaly in the coronavirus age, most exhibitors understandably keep the money for themselves to help offset lost revenues. But while Jacob admits he was initially “stressing about paying our bills,” the Andersons – who bought the two-screen theater in Atlantic, Iowa from Fridley Theatres in November of last year – enjoy some distinct advantages. For one thing, Rylea’s work as a doctor has kept her in high demand since the pandemic started, providing a financial cushion that has even allowed the couple to continue paying their part-time employees during the shutdown.
“The burden [is] relatively small,” says Rylea of paying the theater’s part-time workers. “The teenagers [we] work with, it’s mostly not extra money for them. Most of them use it for family bills. So we felt that that would be compassionate to continue paying them.”
Additionally, the Andersons’ lenders have been supportive since the theater was forced to shut down on March 16.
“Our banks are all very hometown, I guess,” Rylea continues. “They know us by our first names, and they know our cell phone numbers. And all of them have said, ‘If you can make your payment, great, [and] if you can’t, that’s okay too.” (The couple notes they’ve been able to stay current with their loan payments so far.)
The pop-up, which was promoted with a single Facebook post, ended up drawing so many people that some waited for over an hour to receive their bucket. But according to the Andersons, none of them raised a stink. Instead, the spirit of generosity was in full flower.
“There [were] a lot of people that were paying it forward,” says Jacob. “That was really fun to see. You know, they’d buy a bucket for the next car and [that car would] do it in return.”
Though Atlantic had only one confirmed case of COVID-19 as of last Thursday (April 23), the Andersons nevertheless took extreme precautions when manning the pop-up. In addition to cleaning the lobby with bleach water before opening, both wore face masks and gloves throughout. For cash payments, a bucket was placed curbside so that no money had to change hands. For those with credit cards, Rylea was able to process payments ahead of time over the phone.
Though every dime the Andersons took in during the pop-up was sent to the food pantry, some attempted to dedicate a portion of their donation to the theater itself – a signal to the couple of just how important the cinema is to the community of 6,500 residents.
“So many people want us to succeed and bring back some sort of normalcy,” says Jacob. “It was really refreshing to see.”
Moving forward, the Andersons hope to hold more popcorn pop-ups to benefit other worthy causes (and yes, perhaps the theater itself) when Rylea’s busy schedule allows for it. If nothing else, it helps focus their energies on something positive during such a precarious time.
“I think other movie theaters could do something similar — I mean, even just [to take their] mind off of it,” says Jacob. “Because there’s so much uncertainty in this industry, especially right now.”