3Below May Wait Out Pandemic on a Downtown San Jose Roof

South Bay theaters shuttered in March as public health officials tried to wrangle the coronavirus that seems to spread most easily inside four walls. Six months later, the cinemas have yet to reopen.

Now, San Jose is ready to bring back one of its longtime cinemas to downtown.

Council members will vote Tuesday on whether to allow 3Below Theaters and Lounge to move its operations from the bottom of a city-owned parking garage at Second and San Carlos streets to the open-air top, where the nonprofit cinema and cafe can show movies and serve food while following Santa Clara County health rules and restrictions.

The move to the roof comes as some businesses, including 3Below, reel from remaining closed or only partially open for more than six months. That’s much longer than what Scott Guggenheim anticipated when the theater halted rehearsal for “A Statue for Ballybunion,” an original play by former San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery in early March.

“We were in full dress rehearsal and everything and no one ever got to see it,” Guggenheim, co-founder of theater operator Guggenheim Entertainment said. “It’s been pretty hard. We’ve canceled show after show and refunded people.”

If approved, the rooftop screens will flicker on Oct. 8 with a “focus on social justice.” Up first: a showing of “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “Selma.”

Live performances are still out of the question, based on county restrictions, but movie-goers will hear a live talk related to the movie ahead of most, if not all, shows. Each night will boast a different theme.

“We worked to create a program that focused on Black Lives Matter, we are doing a whole series on Asian American filmmakers’ voice and on ... the LGBTQ community and women in power,” Guggenheim said. “So, lots of great ... films, both new and revival.”

San Jose wouldn’t charge rent for the rooftop garage, just as it isn’t charging restaurant owners that set up tables in city streets, sidewalks and parking lots as part of its Al Fresco program to help businesses trying to stay afloat without allowing customers inside.

“Due to the impacts of the pandemic on parking occupancy, the Second and San Carlos Garage is currently an underutilized city parking facility, and the proposed rooftop activation will have no operational or financial impacts to the city,” according to the city memo describing the proposal.

While a growing number of restaurants spill onto the nooks and crannies of the city, live entertainment remains absent in the downtown, said Autumn Young, interim managing director for the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA). The SJDA is partnering with 3Below to make the open-air cinema come alive to bring people back to the urban core.

“We hope that will bring people into downtown that were coming down here to eat a meal, but now they get the chance to come down and do something different,” she said. “There’s something very powerful about having a shared experience on a big screen.”

But putting on the shows, even without the cost of rent, will be costly and 3Below is seeking out sponsors to help it break even.

Up to 60 people can attend a movie showing, and each ticket will cost $25 (or $22 for those who buy in advance), but come with a $10 voucher for food.

Even so, that will only scratch the surface of the costs to pay employees, license the movies and hire security, Guggenheim said. “It’s highly unlikely, even if we sell out, that we will make money,” he said. “We are hoping that we will, between the sponsors and what ticket sells we do have, that we will cover our costs.”

The SJDA is helping the organization find sponsors, market the events and work through the logistics of city, county and state requirements, Young said.

The 3Below calendar for October shows includes screenings of “Harry Potter,” “Star Wars” and “Wall-E” alongside films about Mr. Rogers; the late Harvey Milk, a San Francisco Supervisor and LGBTQ+ advocate; and baseball great Jackie Robinson.

Janice Bitters is managing editor for Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @janicebitters.

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