We need a different kind of movie theater

A week ago, Adam Gurno blogged this piece on N.org: Southgate Cinema Donates Rentals, Gains Lobby.

southgate.jpgToday’s Northfield News has a story titled Southgate Cinema, videos in new hands detailing the new owner behind the changes, Jerry Anderson. He intends to tear down the theater and develop the land, once a new 8-screen multiplex theater by Lakes and Rivers Cinemas is built further south on Hwy 3 on the Gleason property. I saw Jim Gleason in the GBM this morning and he said they’ll break ground this spring. (See Anne Brett’s post on N.org from last June for more background and discussion.

Last week, my LG co-host Ross Currier posted this piece to his NDDC blog: New Paradigm for Movie Theaters? citing a Jan. 8 New Yorker critic-at-large article by David Denby titled Big Pictures: Hollywood looks for a future.

Denby describes the Southgate-type theater perfectly, IMHO:

New_Yorker_cover.jpgAt poorly run multiplexes, projector bulbs go dim, the prints develop scratches or turn yellow, the soles of your shoes stick to the floor, people jabber on cell phones, and rumbles and blasts bleed through the walls.

If we want to see something badly enough, we go, of course, and once everyone settles down we can still enjoy ourselves. But we go amid murmurs of discontent, and the discontent will only get louder as the theatre complexes age. Many of them were randomly and cheaply built in response to what George Lucas conclusively demonstrated with “Star Wars,” in 1977: that a pop movie heavily advertised on national television could open simultaneously in theatres across the country and attract enormous opening-weekend audiences. As these theatres age, the gold leaf doesn’t slowly peel off fluted columns. They rot, like disused industrial spaces. They have become the detritus of what seems, on a bad day, like a dying culture.

And then he describes what’s on the horizon. It’s not what Lakes and Rivers Cinemas is likely to build on Hwy 3. (Photo insertions of the ArcLight theater are mine. Click to enlarge.)

al_lobby.jpgThe lobby contains a restaurant, a bar, and a book-and-gift shop. Before the movie, people hang out and have a drink or leaf through a hot new novel or a movie-star biography. The rest rooms are spotless, and the concession stand serves delicious coffee. All the seats are reserved, and they are plush, with plenty of legroom. The steeply raked auditorium is dark, and insulated from the sound of the other theatres in the same multiplex. Is this some sort of upper-bourgeois dream of the great good place? A padded cell for wealthy movie nuts? No, it’s an actual multiplex, the ArcLight, on Sunset Boulevard near Vine.

arclight_outdoor.jpegThe idea of user-friendly theatres may be catching on. Sumner Redstone’s daughter Shari, the president of National Amusements, the family-owned theatre business, has vowed to convert half the lobbies of the chain’s hundred and nineteen theatres to social spaces with comfortable lounges, and to build more. Martinis will be served; newspapers and magazines will be offered. If theatres go in this Starbucks-plus-cocktails direction, the older audience might come back, with a positive effect on filmmaking, and the value of the movies as an art form and an experience could be preserved. After you are seated at the ArcLight, an usher standing at the front of the auditorium tells you who wrote and directed the movie and how long it is. He promises that he and another usher will stay for a while to make sure that the projection and the sound are up to snuff. There are no advertisements following his speech, and only four coming attractions. The movie begins, and you are utterly lost in it.

Ross Currier wrote:

Perhaps it’s the “traditional” model of movie theater, where the film is a craft not a commodity and part of the experience is the socializing before and after the show. Let’s hope that there’s a “user-friendly” theater in Northfield’s future. It sounds like a downtown movie house to me.

grand2.jpg grand1.jpg grandware.jpg
It sure sounds like it could be the Grand Event Center which was showing movies up until 1985.

cinema10.jpgIf the economics don’t work for that small of a venue, maybe someone could convince Steve Payne of Lakes & Rivers Cinemas to build a different kind of theater on Hwy 3 than the ugly, soon-to-be-outdated one his company is planning.

This June 06 Northfield News article reported:

Lakes & Rivers has eight other theaters in cities around Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Dakota. In May 2005, the company opened a theater in Red Wing. A theater in Owatonna opened in December 2004. The Paynes are not strangers to Northfield. Steven Payne, vice president of the cinema company, is a 1998 St. Olaf College graduate.

Any influential Oles out there who might be willing to talk to their fellow alum about a more enlightened approach? Or should we just sit back and let the market do what it wants to do?

21 thoughts on “We need a different kind of movie theater”

  1. Why not have the Southgate Theatre become an art film theatre like Uptown, Edina, or Lagoon, showing excellent films that aren’t usually shown at the multiplexes? These films are often winners of Sundance, Toronto, and Cannes film festivals. When David and I attend these theatres in the Twin Cities, we often run into Northfielders and people we know from Rochester, Mankato and towns south of the Metro area. What a way to draw a dinner and movie crowd to Northfield!

  2. I think a downtown performing arts center that combines cinema (including independent, cult, classic or (gasp) art films), live theater, dance, exhibits, gallery space, music, singing, etc… would be viable and would attract people from all around. Get them shopping downtown, going out to eat before or after a show, hitting one of the bars or pubs after a performance. Sounds like a winner to me. Anyone? An Arts Town needs spaces like that. It could be a huge financial and social benefit to the whole community. Any downtown building owners want to take the chance?

  3. The theater business is brutal and the guys who know the industry say the numbers of people just aren’t here to make a Lagoon or Uptown work (in fact, Mann Theatres tried one in St. Paul and it’s too small). And remember the Lagoon and Uptown aren’t independent theaters but part of a big national chain, which people don’t want here.
    A theater screen as a piece of a library/conference/arts center might, or movie capabilities for the Grand to do dinner/movie nights might be feasible.

  4. I wouldn’t make the assumption that no one wants any movie theatre “big national chain”(s) here. I know a bunch of Northfielders (see Pat Allen’s earlier comment) who would be thrilled to have a Landmark theatre here; what seems pointless is a second class multiplexx with a second tier film on 4 of its eight screens.
    As a matter of fact, at this morning’s forum, some of us were talking about what kind of corporate retail would be good in our DT, ones that would not take business away from local independent retailers but would fill missing niches. (I hesitate to name any for fear of being pooh-poohed by the experts)

    It’s not just an independent versus corporate, but instead what is a PLUS for Northfield, versus what is ONLY a plus for a “corporate” bottom line; rather than fueling the circulating $$$$ of locally grown dollars in the economy.

    Read carefully; not just monlithic viewpoints here………..

    Kiffi

  5. We’ve had this discussion for more than a year now, and the chains aren’t going to come here, except for Lakes and Rivers, which is run by an Ole who used to watch movies at the Grand and loves small towns. He’s doing the best he can within the financial constraints of such small markets, which the larger chains won’t touch. An expensive, architecturally significant building downtown would be nice, but wouldn’t cash flow, hence the simple shape of his theaters and the location near the highway.
    I guess I’m wondering why people who are so sure there is demand don’t just prove it. Do movie nights at the college theaters or talk to Southgate (while it’s still here) or the new theater owner about showing alternative movies occasionally or having film festivals.
    Large crowds will generate interest from developers. If the crowds don’t come, then a full theater won’t be needed.
    A theater screen in the new library or the Grand also would be a good way to generate interest and determine whether there’s enough demand to prove all the industry people wrong.
    Just saying it should work without any facts to support the claim takes energy away from things that really can be done.
    I’m not against a theater downtown or an alternative theater, I just can’t find any examples where it has been done in a market this size.

  6. Anne,

    That’s why you design it as a multi-use arts building: drama, cinema, performance, galleries, studios, concerts, community events, etc… I also would not expect an independent movie theater downtown to work, if it were only a movie theater. That’s what I’m saying.

    And, remember, such a venture doesn’t have to be a for-profit business. The NAG, ArtOrg, the library and other non-profits draw people downtown as well. In fact, I would see such a venture as a community / communal investment, maybe business owners chipping in to help it along with membership, rental fees, ticket sales, merchandise, etc…

    Why must you crush my dreams, Anne Bretts? Why?! …(he sheds a tear and sighs)…

  7. Dry your eyes, good friend. Your idea for a combined, nonprofit center is just what I was saying might work. That kind of cooperative, multi-use project is exactly what small towns have to develop to maximize scarce resources. Now if we can just find a way to incorporate a sheet of ice, a skate park, a couple of tennis courts and an indoor dog run…:-)

  8. I just sent an email to Steve from Lakes and Rivers to ask him to consider dedicating 2 screens of the new multiplex to “art” films. Let’s see what his take is on all of this.

    Several months ago, I also suggested the “art” theatre approach to the current management of Southgate. Haven’t heard from them as yet.

    Has anyone talked to Jerry Anderson about his intentions regarding the Southgate?

  9. Pat, what a person of action you are! Steve is a very nice person (no, I have no financial interest in his business, I just like to see a small entrepreneur make good). I’m not sure he can do two screens, but I’d bet he’d consider starting with occasional events. He told me he also does “dinner and a movie” promotions in other communities to promote local restaurants.
    Not so evil after all.

  10. Anne: Maybe you, with all of your conversations with various movie entities and expertise covering small towns, can suggest how to Prove, or Disprove, the Landmark theatre concept working in the DT, instead of just saying it won’t work…….. Have you seen any studies or industry analysis that starts with a student audience base of 5000 ,within walking distance, plus the “townies” ?
    And, isn’t a large national chain like Landmark likely to get into a smaller, but avid, film-going market ….just for the purpose of their “brand”, since they have other possibly higher percentage/ lucrative markets to absorb the difference?

  11. And a P.S.
    I wonder what the people numbers are for the Landmark Edina ? When I’m there, I see NF’ers and Edina-ites, not uptowners. I assume there is an economy of scale to having three Landmark theatres so close to one another (Uptown, Lagoon, Edina) for scheduling and capturing maximum interested parties; wouldn’t a fourth site maximze their coverage even more?

    We need a movie theatre operator from Landmark in this conversation. Who can get us one?

  12. I’ve talked to Steve Payne (who is the third generation of his family in the business), I interviewed the head of Mann Theaters, whose family has been a national leader for decades and decades, I spent hours on the Internet doing research and reading all the statistics and industry information before I wrote my story last June. Of course I have done my homework on this. I guess that’s why I’m so frustrated. I do have the information to show it won’t work. What I can’t find is an instance where it will work. If you have that info, I’d be happy to see it.

  13. You can go to the Landmark website and contact them, but if you do you’ll see that they specialize in markets of 500,000-plus. When I interviewed Mr. Mann for the story last year, he pointed out that his firm tried an alternative theater in St. Paul and it was too small a market. The Hopkins theater Mann owns couldn’t manage on alternative movies and does a discount movie approach that works because the city provided a huge subsidy to get the theater.
    Please, please feel free to investigate all you want. I’d like to be able to put this discussion to rest and focus on the movie nights and projects that have potential to succeed without a lot of time or money involved.

  14. Thank you for all the details, the links, and the food for thought, Griff. I’m very much in favor of an enlightened and innovative approach, and the Lakes & Rivers proposal and the prospects for Southgate don’t sound like either to me.

    (Don’t you have a couple of influential Ole alums as clients whom you could tap for the job, or aren’t they the right vintage?)

  15. On the contrary, Tracy, this is a very positive discussion. Using movie nights to fill the vacancies in the schedule of a performing arts center will be key to helping make it financially viable. They could offer another revenue stream for The Grand or turn a library conference center into a venue with broader uses. And Lakes and Rivers is willing to do cooperative promotions with downtown and hasn’t ruled out alternative films.
    There are lots of options out there.

  16. Anne, I agree! I like the turn the discussion has taken. (I think my browser hadn’t refreshed the page, because when I posted I hadn’t seen anything except the first three comments.)

  17. Anne, you have referenced your story of last summer on this topic. Would you be able to provide a link to it for me to read?
    Thanks, Pat

  18. That’s very interesting…
    So what does the city really need? How many theaters and auditoriums are needed? Can some serve dual purposes? Do we need a new center at Carleton and auditoriums at the high school and middle school and St. Olaf and a civic arts center and a new downtown movie theater? Can we as a community afford all of them?
    Must we have so many venues eating up energy and bricks and mortar and pavement for parking — and money — or is there some way to cooperate and be more environmentally and financially responsible?
    That has been my concern for the last year as the conversation has dragged on. Is the purpose to bring people downtown to see movies and generate foot traffic and business, which could be done economically with movie nights at The Grand or a new library or performing arts center. Or is the purpose to have a dedicated box of brick that will be used a relatively few hours a week, suck up city financial support and have little redevelopment value if it fails?

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