COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — More than three years after Gateway Film Center’s chief executive had “one of the worst days of his life,” the independent cinema is still going strong.

Gateway — a nonprofit cinema located at 1550 N. High St. — reopened on May 27, 2021, after closing for the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. In the three years since, it has undergone significant changes.

“It’s funny. It feels like it was yesterday and also a lifetime ago,” said Christopher Hamel, president and CEO of Gateway Film Center.

The film center uses the power of movies to strengthen, unite, challenge and inspire the local community, according to its mission statement. While maintaining a sustainable business model, Gateway is committed to showing movies from around the world, curating an experience that respects and appreciates the artists behind them. When founded, it was one of less than 100 nonprofit cinemas in the U.S. Now, there are many more.

“We’re very different than a lot of your standard movie theaters,” said Abby Skowronek, who has been with Gateway for more than a decade. “We play everything from the big movies to something your neighbor made.”

Since reopening, Gateway reportedly screened 1,440 films, hosted 41 film festivals, featured 27 local artists in its gallery, and partnered with more than 200 business and community organizations. It also opened a members-only speakeasy called “The Torpedo Room.”

But before being able to make its strong return, Gateway had to hit an all-time low. The nonprofit’s workforce had to be reduced by 85% in response to the pandemic.

“One of the worst days of my life was the day we had to lay off the majority of the staff,” Hamel said. “We had to say goodbye to a lot of friends.”

Thanks to communitywide support, Hamel said the theater was able to stay afloat.

“We would have never made it to May 27, 2021, if we had not received just an amazing amount of donations from individuals and organizations,” Hamel said. “I’m happy to report that that has continued.”

After the pandemic, Gateway prioritized making its facilities safer and cleaner. The cinema has upgraded its HVAC systems and been through a complete remodel. Hamel said the film center is “beautiful and clean” after many changes.

Gateway also installed new seating in each of its screening rooms — many of which hadn’t been replaced since its opening in 2005 — with black leather seats. All three of its bars were also renovated.

Another change that often goes unnoticed since the cinema’s reopening is The Torpedo Room, its speakeasy. Visitors must be Gateway members to get into the hidden bar, which was opened just 12 weeks ago. Operating Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight, members just need to ask a cinema employee, then they’ll be led through a secret passage.

“It’s really hard to market a speakeasy,” Hamel said. “Sort of defeats the purpose, right? But we’re getting really wonderful feedback from our members.”

The film industry is down 22% since 2019, Hamel said. Because of this, the film center had to make a lot of difficult decisions. However, he said he anticipates a full recovery that could even exceed its standing in 2019.

“While habits have changed, streaming has influenced the way people watch movies, there’s also relatively regular messaging reaching me that streaming lacks curation,” Hamel said.

That’s Gateway’s main selling point, by Hamel’s estimation. Recently, Gateway has featured, or is still featuring, film series showing films directed by Martin Scorsese, cult classics, book-inspired adaptations, and more. Hamel teased an unannounced month dedicated to the ’70s that he said could feature up to 40 films.

Before each of its showings, Gateway’s screening rooms display the message, “Thank you for supporting independent cinema” to its guests. That’s a sentiment the nonprofit stands by, regardless of the cinema.

“If they care about film as an art form or film culture, and they don’t support independent cinemas, those things will go away,” Hamel said. “We want to make sure that you know we also want to support Studio 35, Grandview Theater, and Drexel and the Wexner Center.”

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