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Small theaters fight for survival in the hard film business – diversity

Nestled at the foot of a large hill on the edge of downtown Providence, California, the Cable Car Cinema was known to local moviegoers as "the one with the sofas". This was a nonprofit description. It was love seats, really – perfect if you had a date, but awkward if you saw a movie with a friend or were next to a stranger.

Despite or perhaps because of its idiosyncratic seating, Cable Car inspired the dedication of its regulars, a collection of students and professors, artists and cinephiles from the Brown and Rhode Island School of Design.

"It was a place where you communicated with other movie lovers," says Mike Ritz Patron. "They did not go there to see" Spider-Man. "They played art films that challenged you, provoked emotions that made you think."

Last May, after 42 years in which he played everything about "Pulp Fiction". For "RBG" the cable car ran one last time her projector and closed her doors forever. The business was profitable, but owners Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian could not agree with RISD, the owner of the building, on a deal that would allow them to buy the theater directly. Kamil and Steffian concluded that in order to stay competitive, they needed to expand beyond their tiny space with just one screen.

"We had a future ahead of us where it would be increasingly difficult just to break even," said Kamil Variety. "We bought the theater because we loved movies, and we wanted to preserve a local symbol, but we could not make it work."

The closure left a gap in the tight community of indie film fans still filled become. "Again and again I had this really unhealthy fantasy that a miracle would happen and someone would jump in and save it at the last minute," says Anna Macgregor Robin, who is responsible for the gondola lift. "You know, like in the movies."

However, no White Knights came to the rescue, and the theater has become a prime example of the challenges facing independent movie theaters. Faced with an aging audience, the competition of streaming services and theatrical chains with reclining seats and other amenities, many of these exhibitors are balancing precariously on a knife edge between popcorn pop and forced shutdown of the awning lighting.

"says Eric Handler, an industry analyst at MKM Partners. "Your earnings are inconsistent. Your rent is constantly increasing. If you do not have a deep investor, you do not have the capital to do what you do in theater chains by investing in quality food and smart seating.

Independent theater owners had to come up with creative ways to stay solvent.

Some have turned into charitable organizations; Others have started GoFundMe renovations financing campaigns. Newt Wallen, Operations Manager at the Anthony Wayne Theater, a film palace in Wayne, Pennsylvania, who grew up around the edges, has been soliciting donations from patrons living in the main line neighborhood of the cinema to install new leather seats carpeting, paint the lobby and sharpen the screens. He wants to raise $ 2 million but did not want to say how close he is to that goal.

"I paint, I repair the plumbing work, but I can only do so much," says Wallen. "I play with people's sympathies and I hope they donate. But sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I feel like screaming in the sky.

Despite the challenges, there are still a large number of independent cinemas. The show business in the United States is dominated by three large circuits ̵

1; Regal, AMC and Cinemark – which collectively control 50% of the nation's approximately 41,000 screens. Once you pass these Molochs, there are a number of smaller circuits and Aunt Emma theaters. Of the more than 600 members of National Assn. Theatre Owners, the leading group of showrooms, has 414 fewer than 10 screens and 91 single screens.

"Challenges and opportunities vary by market," says Patrick Corcoran, NATO spokesman. "The business is typically hyper-local and affected by the impact on their economies."

This means that the sale of tickets will be heavily impacted by the closure of a factory or a new company planting its headquarters on the street May

General Manager Victor Martinez is a 31-year-old veteran of the historic Vista Theater in Los Angeles.
Pamela Littky for Variety

The term "independent" is flexible. NATO defines it as a theater or theater chain with 75 screens or less. This includes a broad spectrum from the one-screen cableway to the Cinergy with 47 screens and five locations, a thriving chain in Texas and Oklahoma. These companies show all kinds of films. Some play obscure foreign language films; others show the latest superhero adventure. Regardless of their size or the films they show, independent theaters have no choice but to outperform the larger circles if they want to survive. Take Vintage Cinemas, a three-theater chain in Southern California. Company boss Lance Alspaugh believes it's the personal touch that makes the difference.

"The [corporate chains] is a biscuit shape," says Alspaugh. "These are boxes with huge seats."

In contrast, Alspaugh and his associates know their customers by name. They also respect the privacy of the celebrities who reside at Vintage's two locations in the Los Feliz district (Los Feliz Theater and Vista), a group of A-viewers that includes Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry and Quentin Tarantino. The company has thereby promoted a lively sense of community. These are not just places to watch the latest movies.

"Our home is a special place," says Alspaugh. "We had weddings there. We had funerals there.

The Vista attracts a few locals representing multiple demographics, as well as suburbs attracted by Los Feliz's boutiques and Instagram-friendly hipster aesthetics. In a recent screening of "Captain Marvel," Marvel fanboys and couples gathered to cheer on Brie Larson as she fought to save the universe. Perhaps the most dazzling special effect of the evening was perhaps the ticket price, which was $ 9.50 for a Sunday night show. Half the cost of a ticket at Arclight Hollywood was a mile down the road. While Vista does not offer the high-end snack selection of caramel corn or wasabi peas from Arclight, popcorn and sodas are also cheaper. But maintaining the appeal of the theater requires time and sweat. Alspaugh, who was named CEO of Vintage in 1999, says he always works.

"Things are breaking down," he says. "A popcorn popper does not heat as it should or the roof is leaking. Or an emergency exit must be replaced. That worries me. I am like a doctor – I am never absent. I do not think I ever really left. "

Alspaugh spends a lot of his time firing, but he was fortunate in one important respect: he had a secret weapon in General Director Victor Martinez, a 31-year veteran of Vista, Vintage's most beloved theater. Martinez has become a local legend because he often appears as a costume of the latest releases in costume. It is a tradition he began in 2004 when he wore a Venetian masquerade mask and cloak as a tribute to the monstrous central character in "The Phantom of the Opera". Since then, he has been carrying everything from Wolverine's adamantium claws to promoting Logan for Capt. Jack Sparrows Hill of dreadlocks and mascara for every new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

CREDIT: Variety

"I created a monster," says Martinez. "At the beginning, I said," Would not it be so cool if someone dressed as the character was cutting the door? "The reaction was so amazing that Lance received a lot of emails and now they want me to dress up for everything – Godzilla, The Nun, Dumbo, I only do it when it's appropriate and I know it's going to be great, I do not want it to get tired. "

Costumed ticket machines are not enough for every theater, and some, like Cinergy, have found ways to diversify their revenue It also features bowling alleys, Escape Rooms and virtual reality games, and it works – while some theaters find it difficult to stay in business, Cinergy is in expansion mode and plans to open two more locations by 2020. "I spend a lot of time understanding the demographics of our locations and potential locations," says Jeff Benson, CEO of Cinergy. "I spend a lot of time courting banks with different K's to ensure that we have capital available for everything we need. We recently refinanced several loans. We have set up reclining seats at all our locations. We have four additional screens at our location in Odessa, Texas. "

This is not Benson's first rodeo. In 2001, he founded Movie Tavern, one of the first cinemas to implement the idea of ​​dine-in service during a movie show, and expanded the company to 14 complexes in five states before selling its stake in Cinemark in 2008. At that time The idea of ​​having dinner in the cinema was new. Benson realized, however, that something had to change – the studios demanded a higher share of ticket sales and attendance was flat.

He had to increase his revenue or face an ever-narrowing margin. That's why he set out to make Cinergy an entertainment destination that was not slavery. "I think our days are counted as an industry if we do not move forward," says Benson. Not only showing films, Cinergy has coped with the recent slump at the box office, with ticket sales down about 20% this year.

"With all the components for games, bowling and family entertainment – daydreams, rope courses – in general, this stuff is really good when it's cold outside," he says. "Even though the films were at best lackluster, we've set record-breaking records over the last three consecutive weekends."

Lance Alspaugh, CEO of Vintage Cinemas, says, "I'm like a doctor – I'm never out of this Business.
Pamela Littky for Variety

Cinergy could add places, but other theaters have a more dangerous future. One option that some have taken for granted is to become charitable. This strategy was made possible by The Brattle, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based theater that plays a mix of classic films, independent films and foreign-language food. Located in the middle of the Harvard University campus, the intimate venue is a curiosity with its Valentine's Day displays of "Casablanca" and its rear projection system. In 2001, Ned Hinkle and Ivy Moylan, two Brattle employees, took over the lease and founded a foundation to run the theater. After looking at the books, they realized that they could no longer show art house films unless they could seek alternative forms of finance such as grants and charitable donations.

"We would not have passed the last 20 years if it were not a charitable work," says Hinkle. "We had to change our programming model, and we did not want that." With so many charitable concerns calling for money, Hinkle recognizes that finding people to write checks can be difficult.

"We had ups and downs," he says. "It was sometimes hard to get the community to see us as an art institution. People wonder why we are charitable when selling tickets. In many minds there is a dividing line between popular art such as film and art art such as ballet. "

Even cinemas that make money serve a social good, say exhibitors. Generations of young people have their first professional experience at the box office or at the concession stand. In addition, the theaters themselves can become de facto community centers. At a time when viewers are paying more attention to their smartphones or tablets, or bingeing Netflix shows at home or searching the Internet, cinemas provide a rare place for people to meet and share experiences. The films they see on the big screen have their own value, they take the audience into new worlds and introduce them into characters and experiences that are very different from their own.

"I have seen films that have changed the trajectory of my life," says Ritz, the patron of the cable car. "They've changed how I behaved or seen others, and opened my eyes to new possibilities." Denise Mahon received a similar message from clients when she decided last December, the Varsity Theater, a one-cinema cinema in Des Moines, Iowa, the theater was founded by her father, BC Mahon in 1954, and Mahon took over in 2009 after his death, still attracting customers, but Mahon was tiring from the pressures of working 365 days a year She had to have a knee surgery that put her out of service for months, and she talked with travel fantasies.

"It was a difficult decision," Mahon recalls. "I had the feeling that I was abandoning people

Cinergy theaters offer entertainment facilities such as bowling lanes to increase revenue.
Wade Griffith [19659017]] Closing the university was poignant in another personal sense. Mahon's birth announcement was made on a film frame and projected on the screen. When she grew up she had birthday parties in the theater and in high school she worked at the cash register, teaching her how to make a change. She wondered how much the decision affected her clients.

"I've got stacks of cards where people pour their hearts out," says Mahon. "People would say what a lively part of the community this was, or they talked about seeing a movie here and how much it meant for them. Dad was proud to be showing thought-provoking films and people appreciated that. "

On a snowy night just before New Year's Eve, Mahon was struck by a final movie. The place was full of well-wishers and media. Mahon hired a choir to sing show songs and "Auld Lang Syne". And she chose a very special feature to honor the credits of the Varsity, "Cinema Paradiso". The Italian film of 1988 revolves around the link that emerges between a friendly movie homeowner and a boy who grows up to be a famous director. It is in every way a love letter to the power of cinema.

"All I have to do is to hear this title song, and tears stream down my face," says Mahon. "This story is the story of my father. He loved being entertaining. "

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