You could argue that MSP Film Society's takeover of the new MSP Film at The Main theaters began during the COVID-19 pandemic — or, possibly, more than a decade earlier.
The society's Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) has occupied the former St. Anthony Main theaters for three weeks each year since 2009 and it has had one dedicated screen there, always dreaming about the other four. But the pandemic — specifically last year's closure of the Edina Cinema — made the takeover real.
"We were starting to get calls from the city of Edina and others looking to interest us in moving to another location. We talked about it, thought about it, explored that a little bit and thought what we really want to do is remain down by the river," executive director Susan Smoluchowski said of the venue on the banks of the Mississippi. "So I approached the owner and said, 'I think it's time to work something out.'"
MSP Film has a 25-year lease and big plans, although officials are aware that with the movie biz slowly emerging from the pandemic, it's a tricky time.
"The loss of the Edina and Uptown is terrible for the film-loving community. The more screens that offer specialty programming, the better it is for the film world," said programming director Jesse Bishop of Edina Cinema and the historic Uptown Theatre that shuttered during the pandemic.
He added that attendance at the just concluded MSPIFF, which brings in as many as 50,000 moviegoers a year, signals a willingness to visit multiplexes.
"If people will return the way we hope and expect they will, then now is the time to take on this new venture," said Bishop. "If the contrary is true, if our worst fears are realized, we're facing existential challenges anyway, so let's offer people the space we've been dreaming of, this new hub of international and independent cinema."
Although a condo boom has made parking spaces dear (and brought in potential moviegoers), there's on-street parking and an adjacent ramp.
Once you enter the theaters, the layout looks familiar but with a glow-up, including a hot pink lobby wall that eliminates the basement-y feel of the old space. It's enough of a change that Smoluchowski says jaws dropped when longtime festgoers showed up this year.
"We took out all the low-hanging ceilings and carpeting and all this stuff that had been there since 1985 when the theater was built. We exposed the ceilings and the concrete floors," said Smoluchowski. "Upstairs, we've painted the walls this gray/blue and we have a beautiful chandelier that's kind of a statement. The windows that look out over the Mississippi, which you didn't notice that much before, are somehow really apparent."
What you'll see
MSP Film's takeover means there's a bit of the film festival all year. The easiest part of expansion will be finding good movies, because they've always been there.
"Jesse and I have long talked about the frustration of booking films for the festival, some of them obviously films people would come to see if we were able to run them," Smoluchowski said.
Now, if a movie hits, instead of showing it just a few times at the fest, MSP can keep it as long as audiences respond to it.
MSP will have more space for mini-festivals such as its Cine Latino series and filmed-play series such as "National Theatre Live," as well as the flexibility to respond to what's happening in cinema. If, for instance, director Wes Anderson releases a movie, the Main might complement it with an Anderson retrospective.
Those efforts are expected to get more inclusive. Bishop said new voices will augment the diversity of both programming and staff.
He added that the theater will continue to serve its St. Anthony Main neighborhood.
"We want to be the place they know they can come to see a wide variety of movies, not just the more esoteric stuff," Bishop said.
That's why, in addition to festival titles, the current lineup includes the newly released "Downton Abbey: A New Era." The hope is that there's crossover: Come for the Crawleys drinking tea in the parlor, stay for best-of-the-fest titles on the other screens.
How you'll see it
New screens have been installed and rickety seats fixed. There's new carpet. Sound, aisle lighting and computer servers all were upgraded.
Long story short, said Smoluchowski, "The viewing experience is dramatically improved."
The bathrooms have been redone and signage has been installed — more is in the offing — to assist those with accessibility issues. Also in the works are revamps to make sure that seats reserved for people who use wheelchairs are good ones.
Open-captioning of movies, something fans of the theater asked for, is under discussion.
"It's a complicated topic. You've seen films that have open captions on them, which can be very distracting for those of us who do not need them, but they're so important for those who are hard of hearing," said Smoluchowski of the captions that describe not just dialogue ("Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown") but also other sounds (Footsteps fade into the distance. Sirens blare. Sad jazz begins to play).
Many of the independent films the Main shows don't come with on-screen captions. Laptop or other portable boxes are options MSP will explore.
Even with challenges to overcome, Smoluchowski said the time is right for MSP Film to assume more responsibility for the home it shared for a dozen years.
"We love the city and we felt by staying there we could get a foothold and contribute to the revitalization of a city that's been through a lot," Smoluchowski said.