5th Avenue Cinema as seen at night on March 29, 2020. In the background, university housing rooms are lit up as students spend time indoors among 'Stay-at-Home' from Gov. Kate Brown. Alex Wittwer/PSU Vanguard

The future of 5th Avenue Cinema

Cinema to become new PSU Food Pantry location

“Two weeks ago, we were riding a high,” said Tracy Kernell, a projectionist at 5th Avenue Cinema. “Everyone was pulling from everywhere and we were all so excited about it.” 


Within days, the cinema would cancel its last week of winter screenings, and by the end of winter term, 5th Avenue Cinema had officially shut its doors for the school year. 


5th Avenue Cinema is Portland State’s student-run cinema—the only one of its kind in the state. Known for showing a curated mix of cult classics like Looney Tunes’ Space Jam and harder to track down arthouse films, the space has been operated by PSU students under the direction of the Student Activities and Leadership Program since PSU acquired the building in the 1980s. The closure of in-person screenings due to COVID-19 marks a departure from the weekly screenings that many students have counted on for years.


Operated by five students, including two projectionists, the cinema receives funding through the Student Fee Committee in coordination with SALP, but is almost entirely directed from within. Madi Alexander, cinema coordinator at 5th Avenue Cinema, explained the initial decision to cancel week 10 screenings of A Brighter Summer Day was made on a day-to-day basis.


“From the start of week 10 I thought that the last screening was happening. We made our own decision to cancel it. And then I thought: Okay, we had to close this down, are we going to have to start closing things in the future?” 


In an Instagram post on March 12, 5th Avenue Cinema announced it was cancelling all future in-person events until further notice. This included not just its weekend screening programs, but also all rentals of the 5th Avenue space by outside parties, a key source of income for the cinema. 


Losing their ability to present movies in person presented the team with strategic and financial issues. On March 19, the SFC sent a survey through email to all student groups asking groups to estimate losses and levels of student worker staffing for the coming term. 


“Getting the emails like, hey what’s your budget? Like, who’s not essential? and I’m like, hey it’s Tuesday and you’re giving me 24 hours to decide if we need money or not,’” Alexander said. 


After cancelling all events for the next term, the 5th Avenue Cinema team began devising alternate ways of fulfilling their purpose to the PSU community. 


“One thing that we’re thinking about is having Q&As through Zoom,” Kernell said. “We were in talks to have a director come to us and screen her film which obviously we can’t do now, so we’re trying to set up some kind of online function for that.”  


“We’re trying to figure out how we can create accessible ways to view streams online. With the big distributors we normally work with, that’s usually really difficult.”


The 5th Avenue Cinema staff are also considering a 5th Avenue Cinema podcast. The podcast would feature the staff discussing film and would be centered around the PSU community.


 “The podcast is probably one of our biggest ways to move forward with 5th avenue as a space,” Kernell said. “It would be about bridging the gap to community engagement remotely. We’re trying to engage with our student body with interactive things.”


“We’ve talked about movies being the central focus, but also stuff that people have easy access to like music videos and then we can go on the podcast and say, here’s our staff’s take on this,” Alexander said. “We’re trying to keep the idea and heart of 5th Avenue of giving people access to films that they normally wouldn’t come across in big theaters or on their own.” 


Kernell expressed the direction that the podcast would take in addressing the current pandemic. 


“We want to talk with our community about films that we run to when we need comfort because we think that’s something we all need right now,” Kernell said. “The heart of what cinema is is entertainment. It makes people feel better—or sometimes worse—but it takes you away from the current moment. It’s escapism basically.” 


While the 5th Avenue team makes the best of the pandemic, the physical space will not go to waste. The PSU Food Pantry, displaced by the closure of Smith and unwilling to close operations for a term, took over the 5th Avenue Cinema location as its base of operations for spring term.


Food pantry patrons will interact with volunteers at the ticket booth outside the building and be able to queue outside. Once inside, patrons will shop in a window shopping style to reduce contact and speed. 


“We’re figuring out how to keep 5th Ave. and the food pantry as separate as possible while also harmonizing in this space,” Alexander said. 


Another challenge the pandemic presents is rehiring. Three of the five-member team are slated to graduate in June, leaving three positions open for applications. Without a physical space to screen films, the job descriptions of the staff positions have changed. 


“All the positions have co-mingled,” Kernell said. “I’m a projectionist, but now I’m co-hosting a podcast. So pitching that position to outside people is going to be difficult because it’s like, you project film! But not right now. But as long as you have that core interest in film that’s all you need.”


Alexander and Kernell, the only two staff members returning to 5th Avenue Cinema next year, both expressed cautious optimism about the future of the space. 


“There’s a couple films where we’ve already gotten emails from the distributor asking us to reschedule for later this year,” Alexander said. “I think people understand that things are not our fault. Fingers crossed for the summer, but if not then the fall.”


“There’s new news every day, but we’re hoping to be able to open our doors again, nothing against what we’re doing now, but to be able to present films to people like we used to.”