Whatever Happened to the Independent Theaters? A Look into the St. Louis Film Scene
Updated: Sep 17
By Abigail Wetteroff
The Covid-19 era has not been kind to small businesses, the entertainment industry, or our social lives. That sentiment has been reiterated to the point of becoming cliche, and yet the casualties still absolutely merit mourning. At the intersection of these three most affected entities lies the local independent movie theater, those meccas where casual viewers, pretentious film bros, and curious would-be hipsters can unite to partake in the finest selections of festival-circuit darlings and certified cult classics.
In a 2008 segment on “Living In St. Louis,” now uploaded to YouTube, local movie theater owner and founder of St. Louis Cinemas Harman Mosely was all optimism. He gave reporter Patrick Murphy a tour of the Moolah Theater, his business venture which occupied the beautifully historic St. Louis Moolah Temple. He relished in the architectural intricacies of the space, and harbored visions of greatness, desiring to create the best cinema-going experience possible for his patrons.
“We’ve gotta do something to distinguish ourselves. We can’t really compete with these, you know, multinational conglomerates in putting up a sixteen-screen theater… So, we’ve tried to carve out our own little niche, and because we don’t have big advertising budgets, we have to do things to get people to talk about us.”¹
Fast forward to April 22, 2020, when the reality of a pandemic has reared its ugly head. The St. Louis Health Commissioner has extended an emergency stay-at-home order, and public gatherings have been impossible for weeks. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Moseley announced that the Moolah Theater will be closing permanently.
“For me and for my family, it's honestly been nothing but a big success, but it’s just not an economic success for us anymore. But it’s exactly the same, only on a different scale for the big chains — they too have a similar situation." Moseley said.²
Do they? While theater chains have undoubtedly felt the financial pressures of reduced attendance and fewer studios opting for theatrical releases in general, they do not assume the highly personal risk of operating a small-scale, local chain that works on tighter profit margins. Moseley echoed these sentiments in a follow-up feature with St. Louis public radio in July of 2021, elaborating on his reasoning for closing the Moolah Theater.
“The fact that [it’s] such a big space and had to have its own staff, it was not a viable economic operation for at least 18 months prior and we just held on trying to find a path forward and to see if there was another use that we could partner up with,” Moseley said. “We tried every other possible venue to try to save the space because it was such a great space, but the audience there just was inconsistent…”³
The Moolah’s charm came from its intimate, one-screen theater, a cozy space filled with both couches and typical theater seating. However, this posed challenges from a financial standpoint.
“You only had one film to attract [a crowd], and if that film was not popular, then you had two weeks where you absolutely were doing nothing but losing money and hoping that the next film would work.”⁴
Another beloved indie cinema hotspot, the historic Tivoli Theater was forced to change in response to pandemic woes. The 1924 theater, which began as a vaudeville performance space and was converted to a movie theater decades later, was purchased and restored by prominent Delmar Loop developer Joe Edwards in 1994. Leased by Landmark theaters until 2020, it became known as the home of the St. Louis International Film Festival and the go-to place to see the latest and best of independent and art cinema or midnight screenings of Rocky Horror Picture show.
Tivoli was sold to One Family Church in April 2021. The group had been renting the space in order to host Sunday services for nearly a decade. In early press interviews, Pastor Brent Roam expressed interest in continuing The Tivoli’s Legacy as a movie theater.
“My goal would be to provide fun, exciting, affordable films for students, for community members, for families, for film lovers all over St. Louis,” he told KMOV in an interview. “We’re a house of worship, so offering films for us is part of what we want to do as an act of community service. It’s not our goal or intention to [be] in the movie business. We’re not trying to compete with AMC.”⁵
While church services and events understandably seem to be their priority, One Family’s website provides insight into extensive renovation and ongoing restoration projects within the historic building.
“In November of 2021, One Family Church purchased the theater and began an approximately $800,000 renovation to return it to its original dual purpose of both live events and film screenings. One Family Church removed the two small side auditoriums, and opened up the space for large public gatherings. The styrofoam drop ceilings were removed to expose the exquisite beauty and grandeur of the original 1924 decorative arched ceiling. As part of the renovation, One Family Church also installed: a $100,000.00 professional lighting design; a large professional stage; motors in the original fly space to allow screens and curtains to rise and fall as originally designed; a state of the art production suite; all new bathrooms; and all new seating.”⁶
Carol Cloud, Operations director of One Family Church said the following in her statement to The Current on future plans for cinema-related events: “We are projecting a completion date of late summer, 2023. When the renovation nears completion, we will make a public announcement about our plans for film programming in the theater.”
Will the Tivoli return to its previous form? This seems unlikely, given the fact that past offerings of irreverent cult classics (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo the Genetic Opera), gore-filled horror (Halloween, The Thing), and boundary-pushing new releases (Ex Machina, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) might not be so welcome in a house of worship.
Where then must the adrift film-buff St. Louisian turn for event cinema? Fear not, there are still a myriad of options.
Last December, the Hi-Pointe theater was purchased by Cinema St. Louis, a local organization that seeks to “create cinematic experiences that enrich, educate, entertain, and build community.” They are known for efforts such as the St. Louis International Film Festival and the Robert Classic French Film Festival, though these events have previously operated in other spaces. The Hi-Point will now serve as Cinema St. Louis’ base of operations.
New theaters have also emerged to fill the void. With a recently opened location in the City Foundry, Austin-based chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas offers a selection of blockbusters, classics, and more obscure independent flicks alongside food and craft beer. While once limited to outdoor screenings due to the pandemic, Bevo’s “microcinema” Arkadian Cinema and Bar now shows experimental and cult fare in an indoor theater, as well as hosting events.
Webster University and Washington University offer curated film diverse showcases of foreign and domestic, old and new films from a wide array of genres. Both are open to the general public for a small fee. UMSL does not currently offer such a program, and there are no film-related student organizations currently listed in Triton Connect. This could be a welcome addition to an already expanding number of diverse campus activities. Any interested parties would be encouraged to reach out to the Office of Student Involvement by filling out a New Student Organization Interest Form.
Despite the tolls of modern disasters, we are arguably in a renaissance period of indie cinema. A24 productions have promoted the experimental flavors of art-house film into the glossy mainstream. You can rent (or pirate) and stream decades worth of obscure content from the comfort of your own home. Finding a local screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room no longer necessitates knowing a guy. Google is now the proverbial guy, and you can ask it anything without fear of gatekeeping. You just have to know what you’re looking for. Go forth, and find your capital-C Cinema worthy of a five-star Letterboxed review.
1. Harman Mosely, quoted from an interview for Nine PBS’s “Living in St. Louis,” 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BJf4VOWOn0
2. Harman Mosely, quoted from “Moolah Theatre Closes Permanently; Pandemic Fast-Forwarded The Declining Theater’s End” by Chad Davis for St. Louis Public Radio, 2020. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/economy-innovation/2020-04-22/moolah-theatre-closes-permanently-pandemic-fast-fowarded-the-declining-theaters-end
3. Harman Mosely, quoted from “Local Movie Theater Owners Face Uncertain Path Ahead” by Evie Hemphill for St. Louis Public Radio, 2021. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2021-07-15/local-movie-theater-owners-face-uncertain-path-ahead
4. Harman Mosely, quoted from “Local Movie Theater Owners Face Uncertain Path Ahead” by Evie Hemphill for St. Louis Public Radio, 2021. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2021-07-15/local-movie-theater-owners-face-uncertain-path-ahead
5. Brent Roam, quoted from an interview for KMOV News Channel 4, 2021. https://www.instagram.com/p/CNX3EZxDzxy/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
6. Quoted from the One Family Church Website. https://onefamilychurch.com/tivoli