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TOPIC: How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today

How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 10 Jul 2010 13:29 #34336

  • RoxyVaudeville
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On the 4th of July in the Cinema Design thread under the title ”Existing Single Screen 300 Seat and Equipment” heading, rufusjack ask me what my thoughts are on operating a single screen theatre today. Realizing that to answer that question would take considerable time and thought, and somewhat off subject at the original posting site, I have decided to make my answer a new topic.

This is certainly not a “one size fits all” situation. There are many complicated circumstances that come into play at each location to make everyone a different scenario. While I do indeed have a formula that has worked for me, and several others that have with my permission copied it, it will not work everywhere.

Such things as location, population, demographics of your population, parking, size of theatre: both the physical size of the building and the number of seats, your exhibition policy: 1st run, move-over or discount, price, and style of management come into play.

We all know that in this industry the thinking for several decades now has been the more screens the better. There is no question that the more screens that you have the better off you will be in being able to play the best product, thus effectively diminishing the threat of loss when a picture flops, as many do. If you have only one screen and have to play a film for 3 or 4 weeks, and it flops the opening weekend, you’re in big trouble. Even if it opens well, a single screen often can’t support the drop in attendance that occurs during the 3rd and 4th weeks. Those losses, during the final weeks in many cases wipe out most, if not all, of the profits from the first and 2nd week.

There are situations of course where a single screen can support itself, but seldom in competitive first run markets. A situation such as leeler has is a good example, where the theatre is located in a rural community that has enough population to support a single screen, but could never legitimatize the cost of building a new multiple screen facility, and thus be of no interest to the large national or even regional chains.

In some larger markets a single screen can find a niche of its own either as an art house or a sub-run. The problem with an art policy in a large market is that if there are several multi or mega-plexes and they see an independent doing really well with an art policy, they will often change one of their screens to art and independent product, either becoming a direct competitor to the single screen, or completely stealing all the product away from it.

So what does that leave?

SUB-RUN.

Unless you’re in that non-competitive situation, sub-run is about all that is left. But, sub-run is dead, right? Well not completely… if you have the right theatre, in the right location, sub-run can still be very lucrative. But it’s difficult, and it takes time to develop.

Unfortunately, the theatre that Pockethealer is looking at is exactly the type of theatre that does not work well as a sub-run. Having looked at the pictures that he posted of the theatre, it doesn’t look too bad. But, as a sub-run, it only has two things possibly going for it… parking and a lower admission price to draw patrons. Depending on the makeup of the other tenants in that strip center, and the fact that we don’t know how many parking spaces actually exist, we don’t even know if that is a plus or not. Sub-runs and/or discount theatres require a large turnout of patrons… they depend on volume, ie: low prices bringing lots of people, and thus need lots of parking. That theatre can’t compete as a first run against the big multi-plexes, and doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful sub-run in my humble opinion. It’s only chance would be as an art and independent outlet, if there isn’t already one of those in the area, but it would require some major upgrading and “spiffing up” for that crowd.

I’m getting off topic here, the question was how to make a single screen work, not that single screen, but any single screen.

I am convinced that a sub-run policy is the best for a single screen if all the other requirements are met. For a sub-run policy to work well, less screens are actually better… 2 or even 1. Yes, I think a single screen makes the best sub-run. There is not enough product to have a good grossing picture on your screen every week of the year, so if you have more than one screen you will be pulling your hair out looking to find something to have on your 2nd screen that will actually bring in enough people to break even many weeks of the year. You’ll be pulling your hair out some weeks just to find a playable picture for your one screen. Being sub-run, you will have the ability to split your screen most of the time. You can play a PG film at 7 PM, and a PG-13 or R rated film at 9 PM, or a different G or PG film for a matinee showing, and have a totally different film for Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

However, even that is often not enough to make it work. What makes a successful single screen theatre is having something completely different then what can be found anywhere else. It’s not just the price or the films… it’s the theatre going experience. Using the phrase coined by pioneer theatre architect S. Charles Lee back in the early 30s… “The show starts on the sidewalk”, and indeed it must. If the show only starts on the screen, you have already lost half of the movie going experience. That’s what happens at the multi-plex, but at the right single screen it can indeed start at the sidewalk.

That is why it must be a special theatre architecturally and esthetically… one that espouses the glamour and excitement of the movies and Hollywood itself. The closer it is to being what one would call a movie palace, the better, but it can’t be of the large variety with thousands of seats as it would be cost prohibitive to operate. The front needs a marquee that sets the stage for what will be found inside. There needs to be lots of color and flash, moving lights and enough space to advertise your current attraction on easy to see letter boards. The entrance has to be warm and inviting, teasing the potential patron to the point that they want to enter to find what awaits them inside.

Most often at the older single screen theatres the box office is located out front at the building line. Since one of the most important aspects of running any business is customer service, and that requires a well trained staff that can indeed perform such, a theatre with the box office out front has the opportunity to make that all important first impression even before the customer enters. A smiling personable, well informed cashier in a clean uncluttered and attractive box office can go a long way to set the stage for a pleasant movie going experience. Poster cases that are well lighted with clean glass and up to date posters and appropriate dater cards give a sense of professionalism, and by all means must always be filled with a poster or some kind of professional looking signage. Empty poster cases out front is one of the surest ways to give the appearance of a negligent management. Hand written signage is another surefire way to make your theatre look unprofessional. In this day and age of computers and inexpensive printers and software, there is no excuse to have unprofessional looking signs. Remember to also keep your sidewalk, and outside vestibule if you have one, clean as well. All of these things are what makes that first impression on people that haven’t even entered your theatre yet. That is what is meant by “the show starts on the sidewalk”… everything that happens out front that tempts the passerby to buy a ticket and come inside to see the show.

Once inside the patron should be greeted by a friendly doorman in proper attire that compliments the theatrical atmosphere that the theatre should be striving to implement. The lobbies should be colorful, yet dignified in design and decoration, giving the patron the feel that they are someplace special. Plush carpeting with a busy design and soft lighting add to the feel of comfort and relaxation. White light should be avoided if at all possible, as it gives a cold, harsh feeling. Amber lighting gives a soft, warm and friendly feeling to any room. If there are a series of lobbies one must pass through to get to the auditorium, each successive room should have a lower light level to help prepare the patron for the dim lighting of the auditorium. The refreshment center should be conveniently placed where it can both attract and serve the customer. It should be designed both for the easy service of the sales staff and the buying public. Naturally it needs to be kept clean and well lighted. It is one area where white light is important. The attendants must be well dressed, friendly and polite at all times.

Staff uniforms must compliment the décor of the theatre. Since I believe that the old historic single screen theatres make the most successful sub-run theatres, I have the doorman wear the old time military type uniform. I wear a tux on weekends and holidays, and a jacket and tie on weekdays. The box office and concession staff wear white shirts with bow ties at all times. I have absolutely no difficulty getting the staff to dress this way. They seem to be proud to do so, and we get many compliments from our patrons for doing such. My ticket takers are usually teenagers, and when I send them to the bank or store to get something I often tell them they can remove their uniform jacket while going out, but they generally prefer to keep them on as they are proud to wear them. They want everyone to know that they work at the Roxy.

I believe that baseball caps and polo shirts are totally out of place in a theatre. They are for the ball park, the playground or other leisure activities. While many today believe that theatres should make patrons feel at home, it was in the heyday of the movies thought that patrons should be made to feel that they are someplace special when at the theatre. Americas’ number one showman back in the 20s, Roxy Rothapfel always said: “Don’t give people what they want, give them something better”.

The manager on duty, usually myself or my assistant must be in the lobby at all times before and between shows, greeting the patrons and being prepared to assist anywhere where assistance might be needed. At the end of each show the manager must station himself near the exit doors to wish the customers a good night and to thank them for coming. This also gives the patron the opportunity to comment to someone on their movie-going experience whether good or bad.

Once inside the auditorium the patron should be able to find a comfortable seat, free of distractions. The décor itself should be theatrical in style, well maintained, no peeling paint, with colorful rich draperies and curtains. Yes, there should definitely be a curtain in front of the screen. The curtain should be closed with pleasing music playing while people are entering the auditorium. The house lights should be fully up, and again… no white light. Amber is again the best color for warm illumination, with other colors… reds, blues or greens to accent period lighting fixtures. No preshow advertisements of any nature, whether rolling stock, digital, or slides should be shown. People PAY to see a movie, they don’t pay to see advertisements. The music should be popular piano music or orchestrations… always instrumental, never vocals. The only time a vocal should be heard in a theatre is when someone is singing on stage as part of a live show.

When showtime arrives the house lights should slowly dim down, going through several color changes if possible. Then the stage lights, both foot and border should dim from full amber to a wash of color… I use red across the bottom and blue across the top. Once the color wash is complete the picture, starting with our theatre logo, hits the screen. As the curtain opens and our logo is animated onto the screen the color wash fades away. Once the curtain is fully open and all colored lighting is gone our policy announcements are shown followed by our coming attraction trailer, and sometimes a cartoon. We show only one trailer… our next attraction (unless we’re splitting the screen when we will show a trailer for each of the next attractions), with appropriate dater strips to inform the patrons when the next feature will play. An opening usually goes like this: Roxy logo, Policy announcement, (possible cartoon), Prevues of Coming Attractions, Our Next Attraction, Starts Friday, Trailer, Remember this Attraction Starts Friday, Our Feature Presentation, Feature. Near the end of the trailer, the curtain closes, and when the Feature Presentation begins, it reopens again. While it is closing the red and blue lights wash over it again, and fade away as it reopens. Meanwhile the house lights which have been dimed by 50% during the preshow now fade away during the curtain closing and reopening to leave only one red lamp on in each fixture as running lights. There was a time when this was normal policy at almost every theatre, but it’s gone today, especially at the multi-plex.

These policies may seem totally outdated to many, but these are the things that can be brought back to the single screen sub-run theatre to make them stand apart from the bland dull first run multi-plex theatres.

It’s summed up in one word… SHOWMANSHIP! And people love it. Most people don’t miss it because they have never seen it, but when they do, they really appreciate it.

In addition to making your theatre the most professionally operated venue in your area, one that makes all your competitors look amateur by comparison, there is another area that is extremely important to making your single screen theatre a success.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

One mistake that many theatre owners make, and other business people as well, is not becoming a part of the community. They take but don’t give back. No business person has the time to join all the many service clubs and organizations that exist in their town. If you have the time to join just one, I would suggest the Chamber of Commerce, but become associated with the others by letting them use the theatre on occasion for meetings or special events. Always support the fund raisers of all organizations such as churches, schools, sports programs, charitable causes and the like. It keeps your theatres name in public sight. They always post, either in a program or announce at the event, the names of their sponsors. We are in a very unique situation when it comes to donating to worthwhile causes. We don’t have to take cash out of the till, or take an item off the shelf that we paid for. We give passes that they usually give out or auction off. Actually, you’ll find that most of them don’t come back, so you don’t have to worry about being flooded with passes.

Since I believe that old historic theatres make the best sub-run theatres, and many of those theatres were built with stage facilities, if yours has such… take advantage of them to bring more of the community into your theatre. The stage probably will not bring in a lot of extra profit to your bottom line in a direct sense, but can bring a lot of people in to shows put on by local theatre groups, schools, concert promoters etc. that would not normally have come to the movies. Those people get to see how nice the theatre is, what your coming attractions are, and some of them will return to see movies. Even if they don’t return for a movie they will often tell their friends about their experience while at the theatre for a live show. They become word of mouth promoters for your theatre, and there is nothing stronger then word of mouth… just make sure it will be good word of mouth.

Speaking about promotion, one must remember that no business can survive without being promoted properly. That means both media advertising and publicity. Advertising means newspaper and internet placement. Today internet sources are more important than newspapers, but I believe that newspapers still have an important place in the budget, especially for sub-run theatres as your customer demographics are considerably different than those of first run theatres. A large portion of your audience will be over the age of 40, and a significant portion of that age group still read newspapers rather than the internet. Newspaper ad placement need not be every day. Weekends are most important, but if the budget can’t handle the high cost of most daily newspapers, you may be able to get by with just a Friday ad, listing the attraction and showtimes for the entire week. Weekly newspapers can be very important, as they usually cover the local community very well, both in saturation and local news coverage. People will often buy the local weekly newspaper because it gives coverage to the local news that the dailies do not. That local news is also not available on the internet either. Weeklies are usually very inexpensive, allowing you to place a large enough ad to actually sell your program. When designing ads, always remember to include the 4 Ws. Three of them must appear, and the 4th if there is room. What are the 4 Ws? What, Where, When and Why. If your ad answers those questions, your ad will be doing what it’s meant to do.

Publicity, as long as it’s good publicity, is one of the best ways to build patronage for your theatre. You need to encourage your local media: newspapers, magazines, and TV stations to cover events at your theatre and do special stories about the uniqueness of your theatre and its policies. You don’t see media outlets doing stories about mega-plexes unless they’re controversial. Since the successful sub-run theatre is usually a historic theatre, and if it conducts itself in a manner similar to what I’ve pointed out thus far, there will be many topics of interest that the media can use for community interest stories. The media likes to write about things that are unusual and different. Your theatre will be so different and unique that many stories will emerge.

This is by no means everything that one must know to make a single screen theatre successful, but it’s a good start. I know that it is a minority opinion. Many will disagree with my philosophy. As I stated at the beginning, it won’t work everywhere, or with just any kind of theatre. It has worked very well for me, and for several other historic theatres that have adopted my policies.

Each theatre must find its own niche. Regardless of its roots, whether it’s from the 20s, 30,s or even the 40s, if it is restored to its original appearance, and operated as it would have been when it first opened, it will create a uniqueness that will make it so different from your competition, it will garner the attention of the media and the community and will become what is probably the most important element of all for its eventual success.

People will look at your theatre not as yours, but as theirs.

Once you have attained that… the battle has been won.
Last Edit: 12 Jul 2010 13:08 by RoxyVaudeville.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 10 Jul 2010 14:50 #34337

  • leeler
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What a wonderful post, Roxy!

All newbies should read this and take it to heart.
"What a crazy business"
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 10 Jul 2010 15:19 #34338

Roxy,

I am looking at re-openning a single screen theater in a metropolitan area with four multi-plex cinemas in nearby towns. I have a plan to be different from all the others, but was always still concerned about the theater's ability to compete in the long run. I like what you have stated about going sub-run, as there are no sub-runs in the area, and I belive that I will be including some of your suggestions into the showmanship plan I already had in place. I think they will work nicely. Thanks!
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 10 Jul 2010 21:16 #34343

Very nice post.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 10 Jul 2010 22:44 #34345

  • LeviWeaver
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I've been reading up on these boards for much of the last 24 hours, and this is my first post, to say: bravo. This was inspiring.

I found you guys because I was researching & trying to find out what all goes into running a theater. I'm currently trying to put together an investment group to buy the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, Texas. Current plans are for it to be demolished and turned into a bank (it's always a bank, isn't it?) but Bank of America has gotten a lot of public outcry, and it looks as though they may back out of the sale altogether to save face.

My wife and I were married in that building, and our hope is to restore it (it's been used as a concert venue for the last 12 years, but has really gone to crap in the last 5, being used mostly for local / metal shows.) and turn it into an art house movie theater / live theatre / music venue, etc.

The odds are stacked against us at the moment (For one, I have about $400 to put towards the project) but public outrage is on our side, and everyone from city councilmen to national registry of historic landmarks has been encouraging.

This forum has been one million points of help, and this post is the icing on top. Thanks to Adam Holland of the Fiske Theatre in Oak Grove, LA for pointing me here.

Fingers crossed, I'll have good reason to be here a lot more frequently in coming years.

-Levi
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 11:34 #34358

  • Mike
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all hail Roxy. When people pronounce single screen theatres dead they forget the magic ingredient of management. I personally always want more screens but that doesn't question anything that "the master" has said at the foundation.
Michael Hurley
Impresario
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 13:17 #34359

  • Orpheum
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As usual, Roxy leads the way. I can only add two things to what he writes that had a major impact on my theatres. First, to expand on the internet idea, I would urge other owners to develop a Facebook following. As of today, my theatres have more than 2000 friends and this has proven extremely valuable this summer reaching the 16 to 40 year demographic who no longer read the paper. Second, Before each show we make a personal announcement where we welcome patrons to our theatre, ask them to turn off their cell phones, and let them know coming attractions. We started doing this three years ago and it has been the single most important change we ever instituted.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 16:04 #34361

  • rufusjack
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Roxy,
Thanks for your thoughts, well though out.

Orpheum,

You do a great job and we have copied some of your ideas. I think you have been very smart in picking what theaters to buy.

Which leads me to the following: (sorry to be a downer on this thread) The odds of running a profitable single screen is against you. At least in Missouri and Kansas, the overwhelming majority of operating sinlge screens are community owned. In the case of Orpheum and Leeler you chose good locations with competition more than 20 miles away if not further.

I only say this in the hope that the newbies will tread water carefully if they are looking at single screens. It obviously can be done but it will be challenging, probably one of the most challenging business ventures one can take on.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 16:46 #34363

  • Orpheum
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Thanks for the kind words Rufus...I mostly agree. My best location, the Orpheum, has a major competitor(first run four-plex) only 10 miles away in a town that has major restaurants and shopping right on I-55. He has resisted the temptation to raise prices and does a very strong business. With that said, we work our butts off day and night to create a great environment for moviegoing. This is my one and only job and if I screw this up I will probably have to sell cars. I laugh when I read posts from those who want to enter out field because they love movies and it looks like so much fun. Anyone who gets into this business had better get ready to work and starve for a couple of years and then hope the industry doesn't send us packin by then because they realize how small our share of the take is.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 17:03 #34364

  • slapintheface
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First let me say this was very well written and thank you...My question is since you own the theater you dont have todays current overhead charges someone new might have. So could your theater support a $7,000 per month rent with cam charges as a single theater? $84,000 a year in rent and another 10,000 to 15,000 in cam could it be profitable if you were just starting out?
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 19:35 #34366

  • rufusjack
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Orpheum,
Is that the one with all of the Coke stuff in the lobby? Your theater is way cooler. Now what would happen if that theater had 3d?

You are certainly right about working your butt off. My last day off was to go to ShoWest (traveling is a lot of work, especially when you are gone for only 48 hours). I have taken 2 days off in the last 12 mos. I think I can take a couple of days off in September.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 21:10 #34367

  • Orpheum
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Rufus: Yes, that is the theatre. Coke stuff in the lobby but they only sell Pepsi products! Regarding 3-D, I hope he goes for it. First, I would love to play a 2-d against him without the surcharge. Roger Ebert in his review of Despicable Me ends it by saying "How can people deceive themselves by thinking that 3-D is worth paying for". I am against 3-d. I believe it was a tool for the studios to make us raise our prices. They created a false wave of energy with Avatar and scared theatre owners into going along with it out of fear of "missing the boat". Now reality sets in and we are finding out that the more a family has to pay for a ticket, the less trips they will make to the theatre...3-d or not. AMC is seeing this...in Springfield Illinois they lowered matinee prices to $5.00.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 12 Jul 2010 22:31 #34368

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I used to think that about 3d as well. But.....I am beginning to doubt that belief. People believe what they see and they are liking 3d. I am glad that I have added 3d before my main competitor has. (Leeler time for you to chime in-cough, cough)

As far as critic's go, they have long ago lost their importance in the eyes of most movie goers (at least mainstrean in the Midwest)

Sucks that AMC is doing what many of us are doing - charging lower ticket price. Lets hope they do not drop their concession prices too!
Last Edit: 12 Jul 2010 22:32 by rufusjack.
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 13 Jul 2010 02:47 #34369

  • revrobor
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Well Roxie, I finally got around to reading your post and was stunned. I swear I could have written it myself. You and I see eye-to-eye on how to operate a theatre. I started in this business when the classic single screen was THEE showplace of the community. I have been saddened by what the behemoth multiplexes have done to (not for) the movie going public. A great piece. May all who post or lurk here read it and learn from it. And may you enjoy many years of continued success. Would you care to pm me and tell me where you are located?
Bob Allen
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Re:How to operate a Single Screen Theatre Today 13 Jul 2010 10:58 #34370

  • elvislvr
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Great info on successfully operating a single screen. I own a single screen that is located 3 1/2 hours away from me and I face the challenge of hiring people who are on board with the philosophy that Roxy laid out for success. That being said, are there any bookers out there who can book for me a mix of sub-run, indie, and first run movies? My idea is to show the Holiday and summer blockbusters and then during slower months fill in with sub and indie films. Again, my biggest challenge is staffing. Any suggestions are welcomed. And, if you live in the Northeast area of Ohio and would like an opportunity to operate a single screen with Roxy's plan, contact me.
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