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Small theaters are struggling to survive in Tough Movie Business – Variety

Located at the foot of a large hill on the edge of downtown Providence, R.I., Cable Car Cinema was known for local movie players as "one with sofas". It was a charitable description. They were love seats, really – perfect if you were with a date but awkward if you went to watch a movie with a friend or found yourself next to a stranger.

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

"It was a place you went to communicate with other movie lovers," said Mike Ritz, a long time patron. "You didn't go there to see" Spider-Man. "They played art films that challenged you, the provoked feeling that made you think."

In May after 42 years of screening everything from "Pulp Fiction" to "RBG", Cable Car ran its projector for a final time and closed the doors forever. The company was profitable, but owners Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian could not enter into an agreement with RISD, the building's owner, for an agreement that would allow them to purchase the theater directly. Kamil and Steffian concluded that in order to remain competitive, they had to expand beyond their small single screen space.

"We looked at a future where it would be harder and harder to just break," Kamil Variety told. "We bought the theater because we loved movies, and we wanted to keep a local icon, but we couldn't make it work."

The closure left a void in the dense community of indie film fans, one that has not yet filled in. "I continued to have this truly unhealthy fantasy that some miracle would happen and someone would go in and save it at the last minute," Cable Car regularly says Anna Macgregor Robin. "You know like the movies."

But no white knights came to the rescue, and the theater has become a good example of the challenges facing independent owned movie houses. Competition from streaming services and theater chains faces aging audiences and has room for recliners and other facilities. Many of these exhibitors are uncertainly balancing on a knife edge between popping more popcorn and being forced to turn off the light.

"It's a tough business," says Eric Handler, an exhibition industry analyst at MKM Partners. "Your income is inconsistent. Your rent continues to go up. Unless you have a deep pocket investor, you don't have the capital to do what they're doing in theater chains by investing in high-end foods and more sophisticated seating." 1

9659002] Independent theater owners have been forced to come up with creative ways to stay solvent.

Some have passed to nonprofits; others have started GoFundMe campaigns to finance renovations. Newt Wallen, Operation Commander at Anthony Wayne Theater, a movie venue in Wayne, Pa., Who has grown ragged around the edges, has sold patrons donations living in the cinema's Main Line neighborhood hoping to install new leather seats and rugs, painting lobby and sprucing up screens. He will raise $ 2 million, but declined to say how close he is to that goal.

"I paint, I set plumbing, but there is only so much I can do," Wallen says. "I play on people's sympathy and hope they donate. But sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I want to scream in the sky."

Despite the challenges, a large number of independently owned cinemas still exist. The exhibition company in the US is dominated by three major circuits – Regal, AMC and Cinemark – which collectively control 50% of the approx. 41,000 screens in the country. But when you get past these juggernauts, there are a number of smaller circuits and mother-and-pop theaters. Of the more than 600 members of the National Assn. of theater owners, the leading exhibition industry's trading group, has 414 fewer than 10 displays and 91 have single-screen venues.

"The challenges and opportunities vary by market," says Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for NATO. "Business tends to be hyper-local and influenced by what's happening in their economies."

This means that ticket sales can be heavily influenced by a factory shutdown or a new company planting its headquarters down the street, not just what movie frames screen

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 a flexible one. NATO defines it as a theater or theater chain that has 75 screens or less. It includes a wide range, from the single-screen cable car to the 47-screen, five-location Cinergy, a thriving chain in Texas and Oklahoma. These companies exhibit all kinds of films. Some play unclear foreign language films; others exhibit the latest superhero adventure. Regardless of their size or the films they present, independent theaters have no choice but to equip the major circuits if they want to survive. Take Vintage Cinemas, a three-theater chain in Southern California. Business leader Lance Alspaugh believes it's the personal touch that makes the difference.

"They [corporate chains] are cookie-cutter," says Alspaugh. "They are boxes of huge seats."

In contrast, Alspaugh and his employees know their customers by name. They also respect the celebrities' privacy, which often counts Vintage's two places in LA's Los Feliz neighborhood (Los Feliz Theater and Vista), a group of A-listers that include Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry and Quentin Tarantino. In the process, the company has developed a living sense of society. It's not just places to watch the latest movies.

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

Vista attracts a smattering of locals representing more demographics, as well as suburbs drawn to Los Feliz's stores and Instagram-friendly hipster aesthetics. At a recent exhibition of "Captain Marvel," gaggles of teenage girls, Marvel fanboys and couples congregated to cheer on Brie Larson when she struggled to save the universe. Perhaps the evening's most dazzling effect was the admission price, which was $ 9.50 for a Sunday night, showing half of the ticket one kilometer down the road at Arclight Hollywood. While Vista does not boast of Arclight's high-end snack selection of caramel corn or wasabi peas, its popcorn and soda are also lower prices. But the maintenance of the theater's appeal takes time and sweat. Alspaugh, who became CEO of the Year in 1999, says he always works.

"Things are breaking," he says. "A popcorn popper does not heat the way it needs, or the ceiling is leaking. Or an emergency exit needs to be replaced. Something like that worries me. I'm like a doctor – I'm never out of call. I don't think I've ever been away . "

Alspaugh can spend a lot of time burning out fires, but he has been fortunate in one important respect: He has a secret weapon as General Manager Victor Martinez, a 31-year-old veteran from Vista, Vintage's most popular theater. Martinez has become a local legend to make frequent appearances in costume as a sign of the latest releases. It's a tradition he started in 2004 when he donned a Venetian masquerade mask and cloak as a tribute to the monstrous central character of the "Opera's Phantom". Since then, he has been using everything from Wolverine's adamantium claws to promoting "Logan" to Capt Jack Sparrow's heights of dreadlocks and mascara for every new movie "Pirates of the Caribbean".

CREDIT: Variety

"I created a monster," Martinez says. "At first I said," Wouldn't it be so cool if someone was dressed as the character at the door, cutting tickets? "The reaction was so amazing, Lance got lots of emails. Now they want me to dress me up for everything. For & # 39; Godzilla & # 39; The Nun, & # 39; & # 39; Dumbo. & # 39; I only do it when appropriate, and I know it's gonna be great. I don't want it to get tired. "

Costumed ticketers aren't enough for all theaters. Some, such as Cinergy, has found ways to spread their revenue. The chain not only cuts film. Its locations also offer bowling lanes, escape rooms and virtual reality games. And it works. While some theaters are struggling to stay in business, Cinergy is in a state of expansion. It plans to open two more sites by 2020.

"I spend a lot of time trying to understand the demographics of places, both our and potential sites," says Jeff Benson, CEO of Cinergy. "I spend a lot of time knocking banks and talking to different lenders and making sure we have the capital set for what we need. We have refinanced several loans lately. We have added recliners to all our locations We put four more screens in our Odessa, Texas place. "

This is not Benson's first rodeo. In 2001, he founded the Movie Tavern, one of the earliest cinemas to embrace the idea of ​​offering your earnings, while a movie played and grew the company into 14 complexes in five states before selling its stake in Cinemark in 2008. At the time the idea of ​​serving dinner at a cinema was novel. However, Benson acknowledged that there was something needed to change – the studios demanded a larger share of the ticket sales, and the presence was flattened.

He had to grow his earnings or have a future with tighter margins. With this in mind, he set out to make Cinergy an entertainment destination that was not a slave to showtimes. "I think our days are numbered as an industry if we don't develop," says Benson. Because Cinergy not only shows films, it has been able to deviate from the recent ticket office decline – ticket sales this year are down to approx. 20%.

"With all games and bowling and family entertainment components – fly room, rope courses – typically that kind of thing makes it really good when it's cold outside," he says. "Although the films have at best been unclear, we have put records in the game rooms each of the last three consecutive weekends."

CEO of Lance Alspaugh, Vintage Cinemas, says, "I'm like a doctor – I'm never without a call."
Pamela Littky for Variety

Cinergy can add sites, but other theaters face a more dangerous future. An avenue that some have taken to stay flat is to become a nonprofit. This strategy has enabled The Brattle, a Cambridge, Mass. -Based theater that plays a mix of classic movies, independent features and foreign language danger. Located in the middle of the Harvard University campus, the intimate venue is somewhat of a curiosity with its Valentine's Day actions of "Casablanca" and its rear projection system. In 2001, Ned Hinkle and Ivy Moylan, two Brattle employees, took over the lease and created a foundation for running the theater. After looking at the books, they realized that they could not continue to display art-house films unless they could pursue alternative forms of funding, such as grants and charitable contributions.

"We wouldn't have lasted the last 20 years if we weren't an ideal one," Hinkle says. "We would have had to change our programming model and we wouldn't." With so many charitable causes asking for money, Hinkle acknowledges that it may be difficult to find people who are willing to write checks. "

" We I have had our ups and downs, "he says." It has been difficult at times to get society to see us as an art institution. People wonder why we are nonprofit if we sell tickets. There is a dividing line in the minds of many people between popular art such as film and art as ballet. "

Even cinemas that make money serve a social good, exhibit demands. Generations of young people have had their first business experience working in the cashier's office or in the concession stand, and in addition, the theaters themselves can become de facto community centers. attach more importance to their smartphones or tablets or home bingeing Netflix shows or searches the internet, cinemas present a rare place for people to gather and have a common experience.The movies they see on the big screen have their own value, take the audience to new worlds and introduces them to characters and experiences that are very different from their own.

"I've seen movies that have changed the path of my life," says the ritz, cable car protector. "They've changed how I behaved or saw others. They have opened my eyes to new opportunities. "Denise Mahon received a similar message from customers when she decided to close the Varsity Theater, a single screen cinema in Des Moines, Iowa last December. The theater was purchased by her father, BC Mahon, in 1954, and Mahon took it over in 2009 After his death, it still attracted customers, but Mahon was worn down from the job 365 days a year, needing knee surgery to take her out of commission for months, and she entertained fantasies of traveling.

" It was a daunting decision, "reminds Mahon." I felt like I was laying people down and I felt like I was letting my dad be at some level. "

Cinergy theaters have entertainment options like bowling lanes in an attempt to Increase Sales.
Wade Griffith

] Closing Varsity was a deterrent to other personal respects, while Mahon's birth announcement was made on a movie frame and projected on the screen, and as she grew up, she had a birthday party at the theater and High school she worked in the cash register office, which taught her how to change. However, what surprised her was how much the decision hit her customers.

"I have stacks of cards where people just poured their hearts," Mahon says. "People would say what a living part of society was, or they would talk about watching a movie here and how much it meant to them. Dad prided himself on showing movies that made you think and people appreciated That. "

On a snowy night just before New Year's Eve, it fell to Mahon to show a final movie. The place was filled with desires and media. Mahon hired a choir to sing show tunes and "Auld Lang Syne." And she chose a very special feature to help throw the credits at Varsity, "Cinema Paradiso." The Italian film in 1988 centers on the bond between a friendly movie house owner and a boy who grows up to become a famous director. It is in all respects a love letter to the cinema's power.

"All I have to do is hear that theme song, and the tears begin to flow into my face," Mahon says. "That story is my father's story. He just loved entertaining."

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