Fade to Black: Local Movie Theaters Face 'The End'

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By Gina Carbone

Herald Sunday, Sunday, November 29, 2009

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

The Hampton Cinemas Six during closing days.
[Courtesy photo by Deb Cram]

The story of community movie theaters is not a happy Hollywood blockbuster. It's more like a brooding art house film with an ambiguous ending.

Just in the past 12 months, local fans have watched this dark story swallow three town landmarks:

The 93-year-old Ioka theater in Exeter closed last December and is still waiting for its next life.

The 29-year-old Hampton Cinema closed in August, was torn down and is now a CVS.

The 90-year-old The Strand theater in Dover was sold at auction on Nov. 19 and remains closed.

And in the two years before that:

In 2006, the 78-year-old York Beach Cinema in Maine closed after Labor Day and was demolished at the end of October.

In 2007, the cinema on Route 1 in Portsmouth — most recently a Regal, but often called the "Jerry Lewis" — closed in August as the Regal Fox Run Stadium 15 was born in Newington. The theater is still standing vacant next to Bowl-O-Rama.

Roger Detzler — owner of the Ioka — has heard this story before. In fact, he feels like he's been telling it to deaf ears.

"Seems to me, I told you that the region would see a large-scale loss of theater and entertainment venues over two years ago and no one listened," Detzler said. "Now you see that I was correct and the list of lost venues grows every month."

But this story has been in the works much longer than two years.

It's the golden age of cinema morphing into the modern age of Netflix, affecting all movie theaters, but especially small, independent ones.

"What is their future? I doubt they have one," Detzler said. "Most every independent operator I know of is either closed, planning to close, or planning to redevelop. I cannot name names but the list of closed theaters in New Hampshire will continue to grow. ... The fast pace of technological change, the business environment and customer expectations are too much for small operators to keep up with."

Even so, as some local theaters fall, others are holding on or even being born — operating as nonprofits, diversifying programming beyond just films, or turning to the technology that's killing others and trying to make it work for them.

The Golden Age

According to Edward Jay Epstein's "Hollywood: The Movie," by 1948 the studio system was at its height, with more than 90 million Americans — roughly two-thirds of the population — going to the movies on a weekly basis.

If you were in downtown Portsmouth, you could go to the Olympia Theater in what is now the Vaughan Mall area; the Arcadia Theater on Congress Street in the Franklin Block; the Colonial Theater next to the North Church in what recently housed Eagle Photo; and The Music Hall — named The Civic in the 1940s — the only theater still in operation.

In South Berwick, Maine, you could catch flicks at The Park Theatre.

In Hampton, before Hampton Cinema, you had the Hampton Theatre. Plus the Ioka, the York Beach Cinema, The Strand and many, many other local options for cinephiles.

Times change

But that was before the TV revolution.

Writes Epstein, "Even with new innovations, such as drive-ins, Cinemascope, 3-D and surround sound, the entertainment landscape had irreversibly changed. After color TV is introduced in the 1950s, the weekly movie audience drops by 1958 to 40 million. Prophets of doom predict the end of Hollywood is near."

According to the Motion Picture Association of America 2007 Movie Attendance Study, 172 million people went to the movies in 2007.

The average American went to six movies during that time period while the average moviegoer went to 8.5 movies.

MPAA 2008 theatrical market statistics showed that while the total number of theaters remained flat at 6,269 in 2008, "the market continues to shift toward theaters with more screens."

"Over the past three years," the MPAA 2008 report states, "the number of theaters classified as miniplexes (2-7 screens) has declined 6.2 percent while the number of megaplex theaters (16 or more screens) has increased by virtually the same percentage.

"As a result, the number of screens around the country increased to 40,194 in 2008. Multiplex and megaplex theater screens now represent 74 percent of all domestic screens."

According to the same report, worldwide digital screens increased 33 percent to 8,614 in 2008, more than 25 times the amount of screens five years ago.

Movie-theatre.org keeps tabs on movie theaters and drive-ins, both open and closed, listing a total of 264 in New Hampshire and 495 in Maine.

Cinema Treasures — a Web site launched in 2000 to unite movie theater owners and enthusiasts "to save the last remaining movie palaces across the country" — lists 84 classic movie theaters in Maine and 85 in New Hampshire.

Of those, 40 in Maine and 49 in New Hampshire are currently listed as "closed" or "closed/demolished."

Not quite changed from "open" to "closed" are the Spinelli Cinemas locations at The Lilac Mall Cinema in Rochester, the Barrington Station Cinema 6, the Plymouth, and The Strand in Dover.

Former owner Michael Spinelli had reportedly planned to reopen the cinemas in October. While it is currently closed, The Strand still had on its marquee in November that it was reopening in October.

Ups, downs of 2009

At this point, the Seacoast has two main movie theaters: The one screen at The Music Hall and the 15 screens at the Regal Fox Run Stadium 15 in Newington.

Regal Entertainment Group, based in Knoxville, Tenn., currently operates three theaters in New Hampshire and three in Maine.

According to the company's annual report to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, "We operate the largest and most geographically diverse theatre circuit in the United States, consisting of 6,388 screens in 527 theatres in 39 states and the District of Columbia as of December 27, 2007."

The Music Hall was opened in 1878 but, like many struggling modern theaters, also went through a period of partial closings and trips to the auction block before become a thriving nonprofit center for the performing arts.

"I think the movie business is changing and changed and will continue to evolve," said Executive Director Patricia Lynch. "We have seen audiences respond to Wildcard movies, Telluride by the Sea, New Hampshire Film Festival, Met@the Music Hall and the Big Screen Classics in a big way. I just think business as usual with the megaplex in the mix doesn't work."

Other area theater operators seem to agree.

Nancy Langsam and Andrew Mungo launched the small, one-screen Screening Room in 1982 in Newburyport and are planning on keeping it going.

"Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur at the end of an ice age," Mungo said. "But in an (era) when nationally the little art cinema or independent cinema has been reduced to a clichéd oddity, numbered in the handful across the country, there is our area, the Mass. North Shore/N.H. Seacoast area. We are a remnant of the past."

He lists multiple area cinemas still in operation, from the Cabot Street Cinema in Beverly to the Cinemagic in Salisbury.

Also in Salisbury, Bruce Arakelian is resurrecting the Cinema 95, adding 3-D theaters to the six-screen cinema, which will be renamed Vision Max Cinema.

Mungo is trying to be optimistic about the future of an industry where "only 10 percent of the nation still regularly goes out to the movies."

"Here is my take on the matter: technology will save us. Digital, online and DVD showings all make the overhead of such a venture more affordable. These technologies allow multiple showings of different films easier. It is no longer a must to import heavy 35mm film, although the Screening Room still does so; 35mm film remains the gold standard of theatrical viewing so we stay with it."

Red River Theatres in Concord was opened in 2007 in response to the mid-1990s closing of Concord's two independent theaters. The three-screen, nonprofit organization offers stadium seating and art-house film selections.

Connie Rosemont, executive director of Red River, is putting her faith in diversified programming and community support. But the two years in business so far have been a struggle.

"We walk a fine line between fragility and endurance," Rosemont said.

The film industry is complicated and frustrating, especially with studios favoring the two larger chain theaters in Concord when it comes to distributing films, because a chain can promise more screens.

For example, she said, she has been begging distributors to give them the new George Clooney film "Up in the Air," but she's competing with the Regal and EMC theaters which have 16 combined screens less than two miles away. Regal can offer the distributors, say, 900 screens nationwide, whereas Red River has a total of three for all titles.

"We're forever fighting," she said, adding that if they knew then what they know now they would never have launched this initiative.

Rosemont tells of her Pollyanna dreams in the beginning, when she asked an area theater operator for advice on how to get started. He suggested putting a bullet through her head and if she liked that feeling, she should open a movie theater.

As a non-profit, they can turn to donations and memberships, which help since Rosemont said they would never survive on ticket sales.

If a ticket costs $8, the exhibitor only keeps $4, she said, and the other half goes to the distributors. The longer a film stays in a theater the more the exhibitor can keep.

But even some of the bigger films don't stay in theaters very long anymore, and with independent titles that get little marketing, art house theaters must rely on audiences to be trusting and self-motivated to know what they will be watching.

"One of the challenges for every independent theater is how can I convince our patrons if they've never heard of the film or seen a single television commercial that it's worth coming to?"

The real reason they are in trouble, she said, is the many home entertainment choices, including DVD, cable and pay per view. She's even heard from people who say they love the Red River film titles and have them all ready to go in their Netflix queues.

But the community loves the theater, Rosemont said, and they put $2 million into it to show their commitment.

And it's not just happening there. Theaters across the nation are being saved or created by motivated residents.

"So many communities across America put in their dollars to say we want to support organizations with what we believe in culturally," she said.

They are hosting more community events with live components as well as films, which has proven to be popular with locals.

"The people we reach look for an opportunity to really come together around a film," Rosemont said.

Interestingly enough, that’s something larger theaters can also offer. Take, for example, the 14 sold out midnight and 3 a.m. screenings of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" on Nov. 19 in Newington, giving thousands of local fans one place to gather to celebrate a common interest.

The Music Hall film curator Bill Pence, who is also the co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and director of the film program at Dartmouth College, doesn't see the independent and commercial theaters as being in a David-vs.-Goliath battle, "as the major chains are facing many of the same challenges as experienced by independents."

"These challenges include a shrinking DVD availability window, top-quality productions on cable television, ever increasing numbers of in-home theaters, and high film rental costs reflecting out-of-control production expenses," Pence said.

"We are fortunate that our Portsmouth Goliath — the Regal 15 in Newington — has first-run movies for general audiences on availability, quality presentation, comfortable seating and yummy popcorn."

What are we losing?

OK, movie theaters are hurting in general. But by design chains tend to look and feel the same everywhere you go, and they are not dying quite as fast as independents.

What do towns lose when they lose a unique local theater?

"The nostalgic side of me believes they lose a bit of their soul," Pence said. "The pragmatic cynic in me thinks they lose a business that could not remain competitive."

Jeff Palmer, a filmmaker now living in Valencia, Calif., grew up in Dover and saw The Strand as the obvious choice for the screening of his film "On the Fringe" in 2001.

"A local, in-town theater is key to downtown activity and liveliness," Palmer said. "We need to re-evaluate what it means to keep one foot in the past while stepping into the future. There's no quick fix to this problem of disappearing downtown architecture, but if a community does nothing, it can expect nothing in return ...; Hopefully, for places like The Strand and the Ioka, it's not too late."

Kyle S. Glowacky of Brentwood worked at the Ioka at the concessions counter and as a projectionist. Now an artist and film student at Emerson College, he expects to be finished his film "Ioka" by February.

"I really would like to continue fighting for the small independent business... theaters, shops, et cetera," Glowacky said. "I think that is one of the reasons I love New Hampshire so much. It's those small independent businesses that make N.H. a quaint place to be. ... For the movie theater to work, I think collaboration between different art forms is essential. A movie theater is a museum, in essence, exhibiting motion pictures. But what if it also exhibited musicians, painters, sculptures, public artists, performance artists?"

For Ioka owner Detzler, small theaters have "the same value that an independent restaurant has versus an Applebees."

"They have great value to those few people brave enough to operate them at a profit, and an equal value to the town they operate in, as they often serve as an 'attractor' to older downtowns," Detzler said. "They bring traffic to the streets, which is vital for local retailers and restaurants.

"The death of a town theater is a 'historic' event," Detzler continued. "Just look at the coverage concerning the Ioka, versus some other historic business. Exeter lost a 100-plus-year-old jeweler a couple of years ago and barely anyone blinked, probably no one even remembers its name. That should tell you something of their emotional value to their town.

"Also, when they are gone they are 99.5 percent of the time gone forever. No one will build another Ioka."

[See also article about the Hampton Theatre, ca. 1940s/50s: Hampton Has A "New" Movie Theatre .... In 1942!;
and also: Hampton Goes to the Movies -- History of movie theaters in Hampton, from Hampton Union, June 26, 2007]

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