By Andrew Simonson
Halfway through a conversation with Sidewalk’s marketing manager Nick Adrian in October, he mentions a new ad campaign that they are about to launch in Birmingham.
“You know, in big cities like New York where there’s construction and they have a lot of the same posters over and over again?” Adrian said. “We’re wanting to do something like that downtown and we’re starting to print posters off already, in our trademark yellow just with black text and it just says ‘It’s a movie theater. Sidewalk Cinema.”
It’s a movie theater. Simple, concise, and seemingly self-explanatory. But that’s exactly what Sidewalk wants the city to know it is.
Many people in the Birmingham area have known Sidewalk over the last 24 years for its Sidewalk Film Festival, which runs every August in historic Birmingham theaters including the Alabama Theatre, Lyric Theatre and Carver Theatre, showcasing the best independent movies and documentaries from both local and international filmmakers.
Fewer people know that since fall 2019, Sidewalk has also opened the Sidewalk Film Center + Cinema in the basement of the Pizitz Food Hall downtown, which offers the same quality selection of movies and cozy cinephile community experience every weekend.
The theater was first conceived as a way to be the first regular movie theater in downtown Birmingham in years, and feed Sidewalk’s hungry community with more independent films, some of which they can’t see anywhere else.
Sidewalk is a non-profit organization, which creates many challenges on top of being a regular movie theater, but Sidewalk Creative Director Rachel Morgan believes the experiences Sidewalk crafts inspired their visitors to help it through any challenges it faces.
“I think that most people who sign up for memberships are those who believe in theatrical [experiences], that you’re not going to get the same experience — for a number of reasons — sitting at home watching something, and that they value the curation of the programming, they value that when we put something on the screen, we’ve thought through it,” Morgan said.
“It may not be something that everybody likes, but it’s certainly something that has a value beyond something that you might land on when you’re scrolling through the long string of things on Netflix. I don’t think we would have survived if it hadn’t been for the dedication of not just the people who buy memberships, that are members, but the community who value coming out and seeing a film with us and knowing it’s going to be a special thing to do.”
Of course, the biggest challenge that Sidewalk has overcome is surviving the COVID-19 shutdown, which hit many small businesses and the entire film industry hard. Sidewalk felt it even more as the cinema had only been open for about six months when the shutdown started.
Adrian believes the community Sidewalk has cultivated helped it survive the worst of the pandemic.
“I just remember living through [lockdown], everybody was like ‘I wish we could go out just to a restaurant, or a movie theater,’ just these simple things we took for granted all the time, so I think that was something that people needed, you know?” Adrian said. “Like everyone needed an escape and we’re obviously a movie theater and that’s what they come for anyway. I think that’s what helped. I think that if we were anything else, it would have been a lot rockier, if it wasn’t an entertainment and escapist place.”
The more you talk to people in the Sidewalk Center, the more everyone comes back to one word: community.
It’s something that Sidewalk strives to cultivate in everything they do, from regular events like Film & Book Club, Midnight Madness, College Night and Bad Movie Night, to special fundraisers like their annual Salsa Showdown and 10K Party, to everyday events like Happy Hour in their full-service bar and the regular screenings they put on.
“For a while, we could put anything on the screen because we felt like we were being safer in a pandemic than any other theaters in town were, and that allowed us to do a lot of sort of blockbuster films because people felt like they were more secure seeing it with us,” said Morgan. “But now that as the pandemic is evolving, we’re able to focus more on our mission, which is bringing independent films to town that wouldn’t normally come to town for a theatrical screening, or if we’re doing something that is coming to town anyway, we’re doing it in a different way.”
The community is also what nighttime bar manager, Tripp Hampton, has enjoyed in just five months on the job.
“They’re eccentric, everyone you meet down here is a character,” Hampton said. “They’re their own self, they’re their own entity, and it’s kind of the best thing working here because some other jobs, things seem kind of robotic and forced, but nothing here is forced, everything is natural and genuine.”
Community is a post-pandemic buzzword. It’s something that everyone is searching for, an authentic place to belong.
It’s simple, concise, and seemingly self-explanatory. But that’s exactly what Sidewalk is, and it’s something no other movie theater can offer: a place where everyone knows who you are and where everyone can let their inner movie-lover loose.