Focus on Survival: Hampton Cinemas

By Jeffrey Mandell

Business NH, July 1984

Walter Brooks, who has seen movies and theaters evolve to long runs and small cinemas on the Seacoast.
[Courtesy photo by Naomi Lasdon]

Walter Brooks has seen quite a few movies during his 42 years of running theaters. He has also seen quite a few changes in the movie industry.

The affable 60-year-old grandfather has been managing movie theaters in New Hampshire since he came home from the Second World War. The movie business in those days was based on big stars in big movies, shown in big theaters to big audiences. Today's tiny clustered theaters are a far cry from those halcyon days.

"Years ago," Brooks recalls, "you used to starve to death in the summer. The big films didn't open until after Labor Day when the kids were back in school." But everything has changed in the past decade.

Runs are longer. "In Portsmouth," he says, "movies used to run two to four days. Then it was a week, two weeks. Now some movies can run six months. Contracts often demand six to eight weeks."

The studio's take has changed too. When he started out, Brooks says, the theater would have to pay 35 to 40 per cent of the ticket receipts for the right to show the film.

Studios asked for a 50-50 split of the take for Gone With the Wind, perhaps "the most popular movie ever released," Brooks says. Now, for the big movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Ghost busters, it's not unusual for the Hollywood-distributor cut to be 70 to 80 per cent.

The margins changed, Brooks says. "The ticket price had to go up." He remembers when theaters charged an unaffordable 90 cents for Gone With the Wind.

One of the biggest factors behind those changes, in Brooks evaluation, was Hollywood's discovery that school kids are the heart of the movie-going public. "This summer, I read that there's something like 50 new movies being released," says Brooks. "Some will stay around for a long time, but there's just too many for them all to be shown."

About the time that the movie industry began to cater to kids, theaters began to appear in shopping centers, and air-conditioning became commonplace. Parking became a crucial consideration, and the malls, with their acres of space, offered convenience that downtown shops and theaters could not.

For 37 years, Brooks ran the Civic and Cinema theaters in Portsmouth for the E.M. Loew organization, until the theaters were sold for cash in December 1982. Since then, he has managed the Hampton Cinemas, a "Fourplex" operated by the same corporation that owns the Galley Hatch restaurant next door.

The tremendous overhead at old theaters in Portsmouth, up to $1,300 per week in winter for heat, forced their eventual demise. "In Portsmouth, for a long, long time we had a monopoly with the Civic and Cinema," Brooks says, "until the malls went up. Then the movie companies went out there, and we couldn't get product."

Getting product is the single biggest problem for independent exhibitors, who must compete with the big chains. Getting product is particularly difficult in New Hampshire because this is one of the few states that still permits a distribution process called "blind bidding."

"It's like trying to buy a suit without getting to try it on, or even look at it," is Brooks' description of this process, which requires a theater to guarantee an amount of the receipts, say $5,000 or $10,000. The blind bid lets distributors offer their selections to exhibitors without first having to show the films to them. Many movies currently being shown were offered for bid last December.

Many states, including Maine and Massachusetts, banned blind bids, but not New Hampshire.

The booking agent of a major New England chain comments that some exhibitors on border towns, like Salem, are given the chance to view films before bidding on guarantees. This is because they are in competition with theaters in Massachusetts.

When asked if this is, as often alleged, an example of coziness between the industry and the big chains, the agent answers, "No, it's just a fact of life. Anyone has the opportunity to win a picture. I don't know how much effect the blind bid has on who gets what."

Walter Brooks does not agree. He says that the blind bid has put a lot of theaters out of business. He uses the movie Exorcist II as an example. "It wasn't shown in advance, but it was trumpeted by Warner Brothers to be just as good as the first Exorcist. It wasn't, it was one of the biggest losers, and a lot of people lost a lot of money." Brooks says a typical theater was forced to guarantee, say, $15,000 in revenues, while the picture grossed $10,000. Today, Brooks works with a booking agent and is less affected by the process of blind bidding.

"The movie business is not like other businesses," Brooks explains. "If you open a store, everyone breaks down your door to get their products in, but with a theater, nobody wants to have anything to do with you." He feels that this industry attitude is a major factor in the decline of in-dependently owned theaters, and in particular why the single screen operation is all but disappearing."

"When you give people a choice, you get a lot more people coming in," Brooks says. He uses the analogy of a television company with one station trying to compete with a company offering several. He says that a quad cinema plays to two or three times as many people as a single screen, and that after start-up costs, it doesn't cost a great deal more to operate a multi-screen complex.

With changes in the industry have come changes in the viewing public. Brooks says, "Today's audiences are not so well dressed as audiences used to be." But one thing hasn't changed, eating habits. "It's still popcorn at the movies," Brooks says, "that much hasn't changed at all."

[Jeffrey Mandell is a writer based in North Conway - 1984.]