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TOPIC: Independent movie theaters thriving in their niche

Independent movie theaters thriving in their niche 24 Dec 2012 18:29 #39624

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By MICHAEL ALAN GOLDBERG

With the recent opening of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey shattering December box office records, overall theater attendance up slightly from last year’s tally, and total box office receipts for 2012 projected to hit an all-time high, reports of the demise of the movie industry appear to be greatly exaggerated.

Though big multiplex chains like Regal and AMC have seen their profits dip in recent years, their theaters — typically subdivided into 10 or more screens, with dozens of showings per day, to take full advantage of Hollywood blockbusters and opening-weekend rushes — are still well-positioned to reap the benefits of such an upturn.

And then there are the smaller, independent movie theaters in the area — some of them with only a single screen in their oft-stately, historic environs — that either by choice or economic realities offer alternative cinematic fare and shun huge first-run releases. How are they faring as they navigate the volatile, unpredictable waters of the movie biz?

“There are always challenges, but generally things are going pretty well,” said John Toner, executive director of Renew Theaters, which operates the 3-screen Ambler Theater and Doylestown’s 2-screen County Theater — both of which specialize in presenting indie, art-house and foreign films.

“We’re keeping it alive and kicking,” laughed Mary Foote, talking about the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville. She’s the executive director of the Association for the Colonial Theatre, which runs the one-screen movie house that dates back to 1903.

Perhaps most crucial to such smaller theaters’ survival is the fact that most of them are non-profits. Because ticket and concessions sales alone can’t support operating expenses, non-profit status means that not only do they get a break from paying taxes, they’re permitted to solicit the donations and grants from public and private sources--and establish theater membership programs--that are their life’s blood.

That’s the only way the Hiway Theatre in Jenkintown can stay open, said executive director Fred Kaplan-Mayer. “There’s no mistaking why this is a non-profit,” Kaplan-Mayer said of Hiway, one of the few one-screen theaters in the country that shows first-run — albeit not blockbuster — films. “Otherwise, it’s absolutely unsustainable.”



Aside from the costs associated with staffing, maintaining/upgrading equipment, and restoring and preserving older buildings (the Hiway, built in 1913, raised $2.1 million from the state, county, and borough, as well as via private donors, for renovations completed in 2007), Kaplan-Mayer explained that theaters also have to share their ticket revenues with the distributor of the films they’re showing. For example, with Silver Linings Playbook--now showing at the Hiway, it’s been there since the movie’s U.S. release--about half of ticket sales went to the distributor during its debut week.

“Usually the newer the movie and the higher the budget of a movie, the higher the percentage of the revenue you have to hand over,” said Kaplan-Mayer, which explains, in part, why his and similar theaters typically steer clear of showing movies like TheHobbit or Twilight. This year, in addition to Silver Linings Playbook, Hiway has stuck with such modestly budgeted, yet critically lauded films as Argo, Moonrise Kingdom, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Revenue sharing goes down once a movie has been in theaters for a little while, so when the Colonial brings in a movie like Lincoln a couple of weeks after its release (i.e. a “late first-run” or “second-run” engagement), that helps cut costs. “But it’s a balancing act between waiting and saving money, and getting a film too late or holding it too long to where nobody wants to see it anymore,” said Foote.

The Grand Theater in East Greenville is one of the exceedingly rare single-screen theaters that’s a for-profit business, but co-owner Ed Buchinski said his theater thrives because they’re showing second-run films as much as two months after their initial release (so the revenue sharing is extremely low); they’re family friendly in a tough economy, charging about half as much for tickets and concessions as the multiplexes; and he believes there’s a sizable number of folks who aren’t desperate to see films immediately upon their release.

“If you’re a one-screen theater that’s not a non-profit and you’re trying to do first-run movies, you’re asking for a death sentence,” said Buchinski.

But for all the concerns about cutting expenses, independent theater operators say their movie houses stay afloat because they have a certain appeal that the multiplexes simply cannot match. For one thing, there’s the actual moviegoing experience--inside these charming, uniquely appointed throwback theaters, some with balconies, it’s easy to be transported back in time.

“Both of our theaters are classic Golden Age theaters with a distinct feel and authenticity, so you’re seeing movies the way they were meant to be seen,” said Toner. “Coming to us is like going to a small store or restaurant rather than to the mall or McDonald’s.”

“There’s a certain sense of nostalgia here,” Kaplan-Mayer said of the Hiway. “We do get films that you can see at the Regal, but we think it’s a more pleasant experience here. You’ve got the high ceiling, the ambience is nice, you’re not elbow to elbow or hearing the sound of another movie coming through the walls.”

Foote added that the stable of 150 local volunteers the Colonial draws from on movie nights lends a more personal touch to the experience. “You can run into your dentist or your neighbor taking tickets here, so it generates that feeling that people are really there to help out and make you feel welcome,” she said.

There’s also the varied programming found at many indie movie houses: Beyond showing newer films, the Ambler Theater regularly screens older classics, and hosts an array of events and film festivals, such as its recent Coen Brothers series; the Colonial has a popular “First Friday Fright Night” for horror flicks, and also shows obscure cult films each month.

“It’s all tailored to people who love movies rather than us just trying to sell them the latest blockbuster,” said Toner. But lest he come across like a film snob, Toner quickly added with a laugh, “Blockbusters are fine, I like those, too. But that’s not what a movie lover wants all the time, and we’re happy to provide other options.”

And then there’s the sense of community: In Ambler, Phoenixville, and Doylestown, renovated movie theaters have become beloved anchors for bustling, revitalized commercial corridors.

“A lot of our patrons remember this theater and celebrate the fact that it’s still here,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “It’s a point of pride for the community, and I think there’s a sense of ownership, that ‘this is our theater.’ They don’t look at the AMC as ‘their theater.’”

“People see this theater as an integral part of Phoenixville,” said Foote. “It’s like the living room for the community.”

Still, as Toner noted, there are always challenges, and the biggest one that’s faced smaller, independent theaters lately is the unavoidable conversion to digital technology. The big Hollywood studios are steadily phasing out traditional 35mm film in favor of digital production, which means theaters must replace the analog projectors they’ve leaned on for decades with new digital equipment.

“We’ve seen this coming for about 10 years, and I was skeptical for the longest time, but we live in a digital world now, so we’ve had to embrace the new technology or go out of business,” said Toner.

And that switch comes at a steep price: About $100,000 per screen, theater operators said. While the big multiplex chains can more easily absorb the costs, it’s a tougher road for the little guys. “You’re going to see a lot of smaller theaters disappear because they can’t afford to switch over, and that’s very, very said,” Toner lamented.

Buchinski and his partners footed the bill for the Grand’s digital upgrade last spring. But Renew had to rely on lengthy campaigns to raise the necessary half-million dollars from its patrons for the conversion. County Theater made the switch in July after bringing in more than 1,200 individual donations; the Ambler Theater plans to complete its switch by the end of the year after receiving more than 1,500 individual donations, though they’re keeping an analog projector alongside one of the new digital projectors in order to show older 35mm prints from time to time.

Hiway, meanwhile, is in the middle of its fundraising campaign--called “Be a Hiway Screen Saver”--and Kaplan-Mayer said he hopes to have at least $50,000 raised for the conversion by the end of January. Silver Linings Playbook star Bradley Cooper dropped by the Hiway last month for an interview that aired on CBS Sunday Morning this past weekend, and the actor is pictured on the theater’s website holding a “Hiway Screen Saver” placard.

“This is a real litmus test as far as how much people want this theater to be around going forward,” said Kaplan-Mayer. “I hope people see that they’re the difference here, that no one else is going to make this happen but them. I don’t like to couch things in extremes, but this is really a do-or-die moment.”

The Colonial, however, is sticking with 35mm, at least for now. “People think I’m crazy,” laughed Foote. But the theater is eyeing a digital conversion as part of an overall expansion set to happen over the next couple of years. In 2011, the Colonial purchased the building next door at 225 Bridge St. (which used to house The Phoenix newspaper), with plans to install two more screens in the new space. “It’s definitely going to change our game,” said Foote, who added that dates for the start and projected completion of the expansion have yet to be determined.

The Colonial’s expansion is certainly a sign that area theater owners, ever wary of the changes in the way people consume films--particularly in the age of Netflix and other home on-demand movie services--remain bullish about the future.

“I think people still want the shared movie experience that we provide,” said Foote.

“I’m very positive, looking ahead,” Toner agreed. “There’s always going to be a desire to see movies together with other people in a movie theater, and I believe enough people want to do that in unique settings such as ours that we can keep going for a long time.”

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