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Starting a small arthouse theater... 11 Mar 2004 16:44 #7686

  • bjork24
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First off, I'd like to say that I've spent the last few days reading through the archives of this forum, and I am completely blown away by the helpfulness and knowledge of everyone involved. I just made a post about an hour ago, and I've already received some good advice! This is a wonderful avenue of support, and I hope to utilize it to its fullest extent.

Here's my story: My wife and I have been seriously researching the idea of opening a small independent theater in the town where we grew up (pop. 250,000+). Our town is in the midwest and is just now starting to shift some well-deserved attention to the downtown district, which was the original center of town about 60 years ago. Old warehouses are being converted into loft apartments, and ecclectic business are starting to pop up all over the place. It's a veritable cultural rebirth, something I'm sure everyone is familiar with, or has at least heard about.

Now, there was a time when our town had six separate theaters. Over the years, three of them have packed up and left for varing reasons, leaving two multiplexes (16 and 8 screens, respectively) and one second-run theater. The only problem is, independent films never, and I mean NEVER, get shown in this town, Which isn't to say that there isn't an audience for them... b/c I know there is. The college I attended had an independent film screening that sold out every week... week after week after week.

So, my wife and I have recently connected with a couple individuals who share our end goal of putting a single-screen, independent theater in our town's downtown district. One of our partners already owns a building which is in an ideal location - it's right next to the local independent book store, which is across the street from one of our town's most popular restaurants/brewery, which is just one short block away from the heart of downtown. We're currently polishing up our business plan and trying our hardest to secure funding for our project. Community support has been EXCELLENT, and we're as pleased as pumpkin pie to be finally seeing our dream become a reality.

With all that being said, I'd like to see how all you seasoned veterans feel about our project. Can you give us some hard-earned advice that might help us along the way? If so, it would be greatly appreciated. Any advice at all - additional revenue streams (beyond concession and pre-show advertising), sponsored film series/festivals, decor, used equiptment, working with a buyer vs. not working with one, differing start-up costs... I could go on and on for days, but I've already said A LOT, so I'll let someone else do the talking for a change... you. Thanks!
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Re: Starting a small arthouse theater... 11 Mar 2004 18:19 #7687

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I live in a town of 150,000 people with a junior collage and a retirement community. The town has a 14-plex and a 12-plex with a 6-plex discount move-over house. We run a 5-screen art house that grosses $2M per year.

I'm thinking you could open an 8-screen art house and gross $2.5M - $3M per year. You have a larger population, a university instead of a junior collage and fewer 1st run screens.

I have 5,769 people per 1st run screen you have 10,416 people per 1st run screen. NATO tells us that big chain cinemas look for 10,000 people per screen, so you are right there. I'd ask if the move-over theatre is ready to get out of the business and try to convert that, or try and convert the 8-plex.

I wouldn't do anything less than a 4-plex in your town, but 6-8 is the sweet spot. You only need 2-big rooms af 200-300 and the rest could be small rooms of 50-100.

Here is a list of the current art product available:

21 Grams

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer
Animation Show, The
Au Hasard Balthazar

Barbarian Invasions, The
Battle of Algiers, The
Blind Shaft
Blood Simple (Director's Cut)
Bon Voyage
Broken Wings
Bus 174

Calendar Girls
City of God
Clash of the Titans
Cold Mountain
Company, The
Cooler, The
Crimson Gold

Dreamers, The

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Female Trouble
Fog of War, The

Games People Play: New York
Girl With a Pearl Earring
Good Bye, Lenin!

House of Sand and Fog

I Vitelloni
I'll Sing For You
In America

James' Journey to Jerusalem
Japanese Story
Jesus Christ Superstar

Kitchen Stories

La Mentale The Code
La Vie Promise
Ladykillers, The
Last Samurai, The
Latter Days
Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, The
Lost in Translation
Love Actually
Love Object

Mayor of the Sunset Strip
Monsieur Ibrahim
My Architect
Mystic River



Passion of the Christ, The
Princess Bride, The

Reckoning, The
Red Trousers: The Life of the Hong Kong Stuntmen
Return, The
Revolution Will Not Be Televised, The
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time
Robot Stories
Rocky Horror Picture Show, The

Same River Twice, The
Secret Things
Secret Window
Shaolin Soccer
Sing-A-Long Sound of Music
Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation
Statement, The

Taking Lives
Tamala 2010
Thief of Bagdad (1940), The
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Touching the Void
Triplets of Belleville, The
Twentynine Palms

United States of Leland, The

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

Yossi & Jagger

How do you pick just one per week?

Besides most distributors are looking for 4-week deals, so you have to have at least 4-screens just to open one new film per week.
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Re: Starting a small arthouse theater... 11 Mar 2004 21:22 #7688

  • mumbog11
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hi bjork1:

i have a very similar situation (college town, 250K pop, downtown revitalization, arthouse) except am in the deep south and my wife isn't that involved with the planning.

i planned on starting with a couple of screens, but after i ran the numbers and evaluated the oppurtunity, it's foolish not to look at 4-8 screens. Also I think it's harder to sell it to a developer (or bank) with only one screen.

good luck!

[This message has been edited by mumbog11 (edited March 11, 2004).]
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Re: Starting a small arthouse theater... 12 Mar 2004 11:08 #7689

  • jimor
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Bjork24, it sounds like you appreciate the total milieu of film going, and so I hope that you have the taste and funds to do something with the decor of your cinemas. The others here have given excellent business advice as to the basics of operation, and you would do well to follow their advice, but many operators forget that the experience of going to a movie at a theatre -- and wanting to return -- is much more than just a soft seat while watching good projection. As the noted author, the late Ben Hall said in his landmark book "The Best Remaining Seats: The Story of the Golden Age of the Movie Palace" as to the bleak, decorless modern cinemas: "But what if the movie was bad?" The theatres had something to look at in their decor and people did not then feel that they were 'nowhere' and had wasted their time. No, the movie palace will never return what with the competition of TV and videos, but the same problem remains for the patron since not all films are audience pleasers. If the patron is bored and wishes he hadn't wasted his money on a poor film, he should at least feel somewhat entertained by the total experience of going to a theatre, which should offer him much more 'adventure' than he can find in his living room. Art houses may attract a dedicated clientele that will sit through almost anything, but even they are looking for a good 'bang for the buck.'

I am saying this to encourage you to look into doing some of the decorating -- perhaps to a theme -- as the movie palaces did in order to make your venue something different than the cloth-walled megaplex shoebox that are most cinemas these days. It will take some more money and a little ingenuity, but it will reward you with more satisfied patrons eager to return. Will they find their film in a star-lit courtyard in Spain, or a mini-hall in your version of the Palace of Versailles? You can simulate (rather than duplicate) a setting using suggested decors, rather like the kids who decorate for proms do, but with better materials and lighting justified by your permanency. Is there a fellow in a local art school who can devise or scale up some decorations suitable to your place and budget? There are a number of Great Big Photos stores around the nation that will blow up photos to as much as 20x20-feet which you could mount and use as wall decor. Scenics, celebrities of the screen, old movie palaces? There are dozens of subjects. Do you have the budget for neon indoors? Used as back lighting behind photos or panels, it will lend a glamorous look to the decor and require virtually no maintenance for many years if properly installed (find a neon artist rather than a sign shop for the best installation and put a small plaque on the wall with the artist's name so that he can point it out with pride in his workmanship). Beautiful draperies can make a most opulent and gracious interior if done with class, and if you are willing to learn how to buy some fabric and sew it up yourself, you can have luxury on a budget, since professionally made draperies are costly! Examine such publications as "Grand Drapes, Tormentors and Teasers" (types of stage curtains) from the Theatre Historical Society at: to get ideas. They list it as their 1981 ANNUAL, for sale on their site. I will give you suggestions on how to imitate other such decor elements, if you E-mail me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Best Wishes, Jim.
Jim R. (new E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) member:
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