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Small Movie Theaters Trying to Find a Niche in a Megaplex Era

Thursday, June 17, 2010
By Kaitlynn Riely, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The seat folds down, the lights dim and the screen brightens. For most, the movie theater is a familiar experience.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which collects detailed figures about movie trends, found that more than two-thirds of the U.S. and Canadian population saw a movie at a theater in 2009 and most people saw an average of 6.5.

Is it 2010 -- or 1939? It's hard to tell from the marquee above The Strand on Main Street in Zelienople. In the early 1980s, The Strand closed its doors, but it reopened last year.

In 2010, the movie theater experience, generally speaking, is the multiplex one. Small neighborhood movie theaters are dwindling, most pushed out by the rise of the multiplex and the fall of the weekly movie-going culture.

Nationwide, the numbers are not good for small theaters. When the motion picture association put out its 2009 report, the United States had 6,039 theaters. Of those, 75 percent were multi- or megaplexes, meaning they have at least eight screens; 21 percent were miniplexes, having two to seven screens; and only 4 percent were single-screen theaters.

A few of these small theaters in the Pittsburgh area are bucking the trend and staying open. Some — the Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon, for example — are trying to reopen and stake a place in their community’s future.

But bucking the megaplex is not easy; the past few months have seen the closing of several Pittsburgh-area movie theaters, such as the Squirrel Hill Theater and the Hollywood Theatre in Dormont, which had just reopened in August.

It’s survival of the fittest, and when it comes to community movie theaters, only a few are surviving.

Movies, radio once only choice

There was a time when the community movie theater business was a booming one. Ed Blank, a film critic at the Pittsburgh Press for 25 years, can remember when it was not unusual for five to seven movie theaters to be within walking distance of his East End home.

In the late 1940s, when Mr. Blank began going to the movies, Americans were starting to buy television sets, but going to the movie theater remained a popular pastime.

“It’s very hard to get a grasp of this now, but they were where you went for the evening, if you weren’t going to listen to the radio,” Mr. Blank said.

But the passing decades, evolving technology and changing market desires resulted in declining numbers of local movie theaters. Television enabled people to watch programs at home, multiplexes gave moviegoers more options under one roof and VCRs allowed people to watch movies on demand.

So, the small movie houses started to die out.

The Strand, Zelienople

One of the casualties, initially, was The Strand Theater in Zelienople. An Italian couple opened it in 1914, designating half of the building a fruit market, the other half a theater. It thrived for decades but could not compete with the rise of the multiplex and the VCR. In the early 1980s, The Strand closed its doors.

In 2001, Ron Carter was driving through Zelienople when he saw the old theater, in a state of decay, sporting a for-sale sign. Someone, he thought to himself, should do something.

He became that someone. Mr. Carter formed a board of directors, started a nonprofit and began the process of resurrecting The Strand. A combination of private donations and federal and state grants added up, and after two years of renovations, The Strand reopened in 2009.

It’s a happy ending worthy of a Hollywood script, but keeping the one-screen cinema open remains a challenge.

“We don’t try to compete with the multiplexes,” Mr. Carter said. “We focus on classic films, vintage films, as well as our live programs.”

A couple weeks ago, the theater ran a silent-film festival with musical accompaniment, the same type of show the theater presented when it opened in 1914.

The Strand is still learning as it goes, Mr. Carter said, trying to figure out what movies and performances people will pay to attend. Running The Strand as a nonprofit also involves educating people about the benefits of the traditional movie theater experience.

Denis Theatre, Mt. Lebanon

When Anne Kemerer talks about movie theaters, her face lights up. There’s no better way to watch a movie, she said, than to watch it in a theater with people who are laughing when you laugh and crying when you cry.

It’s a comfort place for her, she said, and fundamentally a communal experience.

Ms. Kemerer’s love of movies and belief in the movie theater is not a casual interest — it’s her full-time job. Since 2008, she has focused on resurrecting a small cinema on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon.

The Denis Theatre shut its doors in 2004 in a state of disrepair. Ms. Kemerer, executive director of the nonprofit Denis Theatre Foundation, is determined to see it reopen, which means $750,000 must be raised by June 30, when the purchasing option for the building expires.

Once the foundation owns the building, the renovation process can begin, which means raising more money to open one screen, start showing movies and re-introduce people to what Ms. Kemerer believes is the irreplaceable movie theater experience.

She envisions a three-screen theater that will show art films and also be used as rental space during non-movie hours, for training sessions, auditions, and film education.

As they near the June 30 deadline, the campaign has raised nearly $400,000, including a $100,000 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation. They’ve also been promised a $155,000 grant from an anonymous foundation, if they can match that amount by the end of the month.

A ferocious winter postponed a major fundraiser for the theater twice, and when it finally was held, six inches of snow stranded some people at home. But no one asked for a refund, and the fundraiser brought in $32,000. It’s a sign that people, particularly South Hills residents, are getting behind the concept of a Main Street theater once again taking its place on Washington Road, Ms. Kemerer said.

“Virtually everyone I talk to wants it to succeed,” she said. “Virtually no one doesn’t want it to happen.”

On June 30, she’ll know whether the theater has made it to its first fundraising goal, to buy the theater.

Ms. Kemerer is confident the Denis will succeed.

“The Dormont and Squirrel Hill closing down was a wake-up call to people that Main Street theaters require the passion and commitment of everyone around them,” she said.

Ambridge Family Theatre

Passion and commitment sometimes go a long way to keep a small theater open. In Ambridge, for example, Glenda and Rick Cockrum have been running the Ambridge Family Theatre for the past 11 years, since Ms. Cockrum, who had worked as an assistant manager with Carmike Cinemas, persuaded her husband to help her buy the one-screen theater.

They both work other jobs to support themselves, and by the end of the year, the theater manages to pay its own bills, she said.

But it’s a genuine family business where their daughter learned to count by working behind the concession stand.

The Oaks, Oakmont

Randy Collins, manager of The Oaks Theater in Oakmont, is working toward creating a special identity for his theater.

“We have to adapt,” he said.

The Oaks still shows a lot of first-run movies, Mr. Collins said, but it’s trying to capitalize on the movies that sell well in its market and exploring events that could capture the imagination of its audience, such as opera series and concert events.

Not all happy endings

Travel east to Latrobe, and a similar business model has not worked out. The Zimmerman family has been in the movie theater business for 50 years, though their focus is a drive-in. Five years ago, Lee Zimmerman decided to expand to include an indoor theater, the two-screen Latrobe Family Cinemas.

But the indoor theater never attracted enough patrons, perhaps because it was close to a multiplex, and in five years, Mr. Zimmerman lost $150,000 on the deal. Early this month, the family closed the indoor cinema to return their focus exclusively to the drive-in. Mr. Zimmerman said he’s not sure what will happen with the building.

It could be torn down like the old South Hills Cinema on West Liberty Avenue in Dormont, which is being razed to make way for a CVS pharmacy. Or it could sit empty like the Hollywood, also in Dormont, waiting for a new owner.

The Hollywood was, for a short time, a success story. A nonprofit based in Franklin, Ind., discovered it and poured time, money and effort into opening the single-screen theater again.

It remained open for less than a year.

Last month, Bill Dever, of the nonprofit, the Motion Picture Heritage, decided that the Hollywood, with meager attendance numbers, was no longer viable. It had gotten to the point that he was throwing good money after bad, he said in a phone interview, and he decided to close it.

A few weeks before announcing the theater would close, Mr. Dever was pessimistic about the state of the Hollywood and about the state of community movie theaters in general.

“What I see is, quite simply, that the whole idea of movie-going is going to be centralized in the home environment, and the whole idea of community film watching is going the way of the dodo,” he said.

Key to survival

Few would deny that the movie theater business is a difficult one, but some are not so pessimistic.

Screenwriter and producer Carl Kurlander, who teaches in the film studies department at the University of Pittsburgh, recently made the film, “My Tale of Two Cities,” about his return to Pittsburgh from Hollywood.

Pittsburgh, he reminds us, was the site of the birth of the modern movie theater, the Nickelodeon, in 1905.

The key to survival for movie theaters, he said, is reinvention. The movie theater that can reinvent itself, that can create a niche that no other business can fill, is the one that will survive.

“It’s hard for me to believe the city that literally invented the movie theater … is going to give up and not have one,” he said.

The national trend

The United States has 6,039 movie theaters with 39,028 cinema screens. As the industry continues to shift toward theaters with more screens, megaplexes — 16 or more screens — have become the main source of theater growth. The closing of single-screen theaters and miniplexes — two to seven screens — nationwide means that nearly half of the screens in the country are located in multiplexes — eight to 15 screens.

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