Easter is typically a time of celebration, of new life and new beginnings. However, there’s a moment in the familiar story that often gets overlooked: Mary, on Good Friday, watching as the stone is rolled in front of the tomb. I often wonder how she must have felt with all her hopes and dreams of the future buried on the other side.
For many of us, 2020 has felt like a year full of Good Fridays. The road we were traveling came to an unexpected halt, with immovable obstacles in our path. It was a year of pain and loss that affected everyone as we faced an unknown future. My family’s business, Sight & Sound Theaters, was no exception to this.
From humble beginnings as a dairy farmer, my grandfather found a passion for using his creativity to help people engage with the Bible. Growing from a small traveling multi-media show, Sight & Sound now has two of the largest live theater venues in the country – in Lancaster, PA, and Branson, MO – and has drawn over 25 million people since it first began almost 45 years ago.
At the start of 2020, we were projecting a record-breaking season, anticipating over 1.5 million people would come through our doors. Our brand-new show “QUEEN ESTHER” had been in development for three and a half years and was set to premiere in Lancaster; “NOAH” was returning to Branson; and the groundbreaking production “JESUS” had just been filmed and was on its way to movie theaters nationwide in time for an Easter weekend debut. Like so many others, the future was bright and we were excited for all that was ahead.
And then the unthinkable happened. In a matter of days, the entire country went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With broken hearts, we closed our doors and furloughed 95% of our 700 employees. As movie theaters across the country began to shut down, we realized that our dreams for a nationwide cinema release of “JESUS” were shattered, too. In a moment, our entire world came crashing down. The future we first saw as being very bright quickly became very, very dark. A stone had just rolled in front of all our plans for the future.
It became apparent rather quickly that what started as a 14-day lockdown was extending far beyond what we had anticipated. Our conversations shifted from short-term recovery to long-term survival. How do you plan for a journey that has no clear end in sight?
We grappled with our dire circumstances, while wanting to find a way to still be a light in the midst of so much darkness. Then, an idea: we had the “JESUS” film ready for release. What if we gave it away? There would be no revenue opportunity, no means of offsetting any financial loss. But it wasn’t even a question. How could we not? Through a series of miraculous circumstances we pivoted from taking “JESUS” into movie theaters nationwide to a free global television and streaming release.
On Easter 2020, the greatest rescue story of all time resounded to a world sorely in need of rescue. In a single weekend, over 3 million viewers tuned in to watch “JESUS” during the worldwide lockdown – double the number of people than had ever attended a Sight & Sound show in any given year. The response was incredible and became our personal glimmer of hope. Our doors may have been shut, but our ministry was still alive.
We were in the middle of our own Easter story.
Growing up in our family business, I’ve watched us face many challenges that seemed final; the pandemic was far from the first. From recovering after a devastating fire to surviving economic recessions, God has shown his faithfulness so many times throughout our history. Even so, with every new stone that rolls in to our path, I still find myself tempted to doubt. Would this be the time God doesn’t come through?
The second half of 2020 was almost more challenging than the first. Though we were able to reopen both locations, we had to significantly limit our capacity and attendance. Navigating the strains of severe financial loss while working tirelessly to remain open as government restrictions continued to shift was a herculean effort. Yet, in the midst of the daily fight for survival, a new venture was born. By Labor Day weekend, we had launched a brand-new streaming platform, Sight & Sound TV, and produced a first-ever live broadcast event. Viewers from over 100 countries throughout the world tuned in to experience “QUEEN ESTHER – Live!” What felt like an end, God was turning into a new beginning.
Now here we stand one year later. I wish I could tell you that our path ahead is clear. We still have a long road to recovery and there is still a sense of uncertainty. However, we are reminded of this: every Good Friday holds the promise of Resurrection Sunday. And while we still may not know what the future holds, we do know who is on the other side of the stone.
This year we are again ready to share “JESUS” with the world at Easter – this time, as a live broadcast from our Branson stage. There is nothing like the experience of watching live theater unfold in real-time, and we cannot wait to bring this story of hope to the world in this brand new way.
This Easter, we can all celebrate as we look to what is on the other side of Good Friday: the hope of Sunday morning. Happy Easter, indeed.
Katie Miller is the oldest grandchild of the founders of Sight & Sound Theatres® and serves as the company’s Communications Manager. Sight & Sound will host a live broadcast of its groundbreaking stage production of “JESUS” on April 2. More information at https://www.sight-sound.tv.