EDITORIALS

The Weekly Moviegoer - Subscribing to the Cinema

by
April 15, 2009

The Weekly Moviegoer - Subscribing to the Cinema

I've been learning terrible things about some of my favorite movie theaters over the last couple months, so this week's column shall be a combination of mourning and business advice, the latter of which consists of an unlikely dream of mine that cinemas will one day learn from the very companies and distribution streams that are threatening to put the movie theater industry out of business forever.

First, a shout out to the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater (where that marquee photo above comes from), a favorite independent cinema of mine in El Cerrito, California, which somewhat resembles, in format and function, the Alamo Drafthouse celebrated by so many movie geeks. Speakeasy Theaters recently had to close one of their two locations, the Parkway Speakeasy in Oakland, and for that reason I implore any readers in the San Francisco area to visit the remaining location as much as possible. See a movie (new or old), have a beer and a burger (or a pizza, or a huge bowl of popcorn), and support a wonderful non-chain cinema that clearly loves movies and its community of moviegoers more than huge profits. I only wish I wasn't on the other side of the country this week, when the theater is screening such cult classics as Eraserhead, The NeverEnding Story and Rollerball, in addition to its regularly scheduled new releases.

Another shout out must be made to the Community Theatre in Fairfield, Connecticut, which I grew up with (as did a few generations before me), and which currently struggles as a non-profit, volunteer-employed, second-run cinema, which is especially deserved after getting robbed a couple months ago in what appears to be an inside job. In addition to being a great non-chain exhibitor of movies, the Community Theatre Foundation does great things for the local community, including providing college scholarships to its otherwise unpaid staff. After losing so much money to thieves, this cinema could use a lot of help from movie lovers, whether through patronage or donation.

Why should you care about either of these two movie theaters? Well, if you don't live near them, you don't necessarily have to attend to their specific needs; these are merely personal examples. But chances are there's some similar independent cinema near you that could use your support, either as a regular customer or as a benefactor. Even one of the greatest arthouse/repertory cinemas in the country, New York City's Film Forum, depends on membership donations and endowments to survive. For those of you struggling with your taxes this week, do you wish you had more write-offs? Giving money to a non-profit cinema is a way to keep moviegoing alive and it's tax-free!

Recently this column invited readers to discuss their personal cinema chain loyalties (and avoidances), so this is somewhat an opportunity for you to mention your personal indie cinema loyalties. But don't get me wrong - I'm not spotlighting non-chain cinemas as a way to discourage you from going to corporate-owned multiplexes. I advocate any kind of moviegoing, no matter who's running the theater you're seeing films at. But I see non-profit and other non-chain cinemas as being the true future of film exhibition, long after the big cinema companies go broke with their digital projection and 3D screens, their motion seats, and their increased selections of nasty fast-food-like concession items.

See, indie cinemas need not compete with the chains, which are hurting just as much, if not more (the closest chain-owned multiplex to the Communtiy, for instance, has been forced to severely cut back its amount of daily show times due to lack of customers). Rather, they need to compete with and follow the example of companies like Netflix and distribution streams like On Demand. Imagine if your local cinema had a subscription membership option, with which you could pay a monthly fee and get unlimited movie tickets. Obviously Hollywood would never let this happen with first-run movie houses, unless the studios and the media ever got sick of exploiting weekend box office figures. But if some independents could offer such a service, at least for classic and second-run screenings, I believe they would attract a lot of people who currently think moviegoing is too expensive.

In a way, a subscription-based service is similar to currently existing cinema membership programs and bulk-ticket sales, which only discount tickets to customers with promised longtime loyalty and patronage. So, I can dream that this is logically, if not likely, the next step for desperate (or simply struggling) independently owned cinemas, right? If you've got a better idea, then let's hear it. Got any ideas?

Cerrito Speakeasy marquee photo courtesy of shobster on Flickr.

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  • John j
    I work at a independent cinema and like wise we are finding it tough. With a multiplex just a mile down the road we need all the patrons we can get. We showcase a good selection of classics, cult & European. Check out http://www.Light-house.co.uk for info about us and if you are ever in the area please pop in and say hello.
  • d1rEct
    That is a shame, most independent theaters here in Australia closed down years ago (as did most of the countries drive-in's). There is only one indie cinema in my city that I know of.
  • There's a theater down the street from me called "The Little Theater" in Rochester, NY. I know they've been struggling for years and have even started baking their own snacks (cookies, brownies, muffins, etc) as a way of cutting back on their concession budget. They show limited releases and it's a shame that every time I go there I buy my ticket from the same old man and sit in an empty theater 90% of the time. I've had many conversations with the owner who has told me that he runs the business at a loss and primarily on donations, but keeps it alive for his own personal legacy. The simple, yet personal, touch you get when asked "How did you enjoy the film?" is priceless to me because only a true cinephile would take the time out of his own business to hear if someone else's opinion clashes with their own about a particular picture. There are even weekly films where you're persuaded to stick around and discuss what you liked and didn't with people similar to you along with the theater owner and employees (who are primarily volunteers). I've met some of my best friends during these sessions. Please if anyone is ever in the mood for a unique experience at a local theater visit "The Little" on East Ave in Rochester, NY. The art on their walls is beautiful, the people are obsessed with film, the home made snacks are amazing, and the old fashioned theater gives a sense of nostalgia I've never found anywhere else.
  • The format is changing. When it comes to movies the video rental places are closing their doors too. Mom & Pop shops were the first to go but majors like Hollywood Video and Blockbuster are hurting bad. It's not the multiplex that is killing the indie theaters, its a few things like: The size of the screen. Home TVs are getting ever bigger and small indies with tiny screens, poor projection, and uncomfortable seats aren't worth the hassle. There are a few indies that have good seats, but the majority that I visit don't. And the stereotype is that most indies are known for their uncomfortable seats, poor projection, and lousy sound. Hardcore cinephiles will put up with this (I don't know why, the movie was meant to be seen and heard properly!) but most people won't and you get 90% empty seats even in the theaters that don't deserve the bad reputation. Parking. Most indies in major cities are downtown and have poor to no parking at all. You have to search for a long time to find any parking and when you do, pay an extra $10 for a small space and that parking spot is usually broken up pavement and poorly lit at night. Ba-ad advertising. The good indies need to distinguish themselves from the bad ones by advertising themselves properly and I don't mean by newspaper - which is going the way of the Dodo. Advertising on major websites can be targeted by IP location so that businesses can appeal only to their local market. Two Los Angeles indie theaters that I visit and return to were first introduced to me by their bright and glossy full color brochures. Their brochures can be found in many hotels and other tourist places alongside brochures to Ocean of the Pacific, Queen Mary, Universal, Disney and more. They treat themselves like a tourist attraction regardless of the movies shown and, from the times I've been there, it works for them! The interiors are rococo or art deco and beautiful. The seats have plenty of leg room, the projector is bright, the screen is clean and undamaged, and the sound is crystal clear. The floors are never sticky, the bathrooms are nice and clean, and the food is as fresh as I'd find at a chain theater. Both also validate their parking at a well lit, nearby parking garage. There's plenty of room in our future for movie theaters, but as always, theaters must ever compete with the comforts of home.
  • I have a bunch of independents around me such as Ritz theaters which are a part of the landmark chain. However, the biggest one (16 theaters), just got bought out by National Amusements, but it still plays indies, but more mainstream stuff too because it is a very nice theater. However, I have noticed my local Lowes/AMC plays indies now too, so I think they are still being played, but in bigger theaters now too.
  • D-9
    Brilliant post peloquin! Bravo! Many of the indie houses are bringing in baked goods and sandwichs from the home of the owner, or sometimes the staff. And it is bloody great I must say,. and I try and buy as much as I can to take home because they need the funds so bad. ( and I don't have to cook lunch the next day) #4 says Quote "and the food is as fresh as I'd find at a chain theater" what in the hell does that mean? Sounds like Crazy Talk! Most of the 8.00 Hot Dogs I have tried at the chains are anything but fresh!
  • #6 "Most of the 8.00 Hot Dogs I have tried at the chains are anything but fresh!" That's what I meant all right. But many indie theaters have food that is subpar to the big chains. - Although I was referring to the popcorn and sodas.

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