The Gray Duck’s silver screen is a dream for movie viewing during the pandemic.

Andy Smith, owner of Rochester’s indie theater, Gray Duck Theater & Coffeehouse, has worked hard to make movies available during the pandemic and to keep his theater running. He’s used recommended safety measures, tried online virtual cinema, and made new merchandise.

Despite Smith’s best efforts, it hasn’t been easy for the Gray Duck.

“We've had to close completely twice, limit our capacity, and only do curbside coffee,” he said. In 2020, the theater’s revenue was down 83% from 2019.

Renting out the theater for private screenings, though, has worked.

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“It has been great,” Smith said. “We've already made more money in one month of focusing on rentals than in July when we first returned to regular showtimes.”

For non-members, the fee to rent the theater is $150. For "Flying V" members ($17-$20 per month), the fee is $100. This is a reduction from the typical $250 rental fee in non-pandemic times.

Both non-member and member rental options are for two and a half hours. Patrons can watch anything in the theater they have personal, legal access to view. Those renting the theater can bring in any food or beverage that doesn’t compete with Gray Duck’s coffee and drinks ($2.50-$6.50 per beverage) and popcorn ($3.50-$9 a “pop"), but leave the alcohol at home.

If you have 16 people (the maximum occupancy) in your bubble, that’s only $9.37 per attendee. However, when I attended with my family of four, the per-ticket price was significantly higher.

But since it was the first time we’d felt safe enough to see a movie in a theater since the pandemic began, the splurge was worth it.

The Sievers set the sound and lighting just the way they liked it as the watched "The Personal History of David Copperfield" and ate lunch from Forager at their private showing in the Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House in Rochester. (Contributed photo)
The Sievers set the sound and lighting just the way they liked it as the watched "The Personal History of David Copperfield" and ate lunch from Forager at their private showing in the Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House in Rochester. (Contributed photo)

When we attended our private screening, besides feeling safe, we had a lot of fun having the entire theater to ourselves. Daughters Abigail and Eleanor could try any seat in the house. Seating is currently clustered in arrangements of two or four, with each cluster spaced 6 feet apart.

We brought lunch from Forager Brewery, which is right in the neighborhood, and got some sodas from Gray Duck, so we had both a private dining room and a private screening. We watched “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” an adaption of the Dickens novel.

One of the things I liked about our experience is that we could have the lights and volume set to the level we felt comfortable with.

Smith hopes there may be a way for his theater to survive and even thrive in 2021. Theater rentals might be at least one of the answers.

“Hopefully, people are eager to return to the movies and events in the community,” he said. “Gray Duck is meant to build community around film, and I think people miss both things terribly. We look forward to having people discover and rediscover us in a post-pandemic world.”

If you go

What: Private movie screening

Where: Gray Duck Theater & Coffee House, 619 6th Ave. NW, Rochester

Cost: $150 for non-members, $100 for members (invoiced to email and paid by credit card)

How: Contact owner Andy Smith at andy@grayducktheatre.com to arrange a rental. For more information, visit grayducktheater.com.