It’s generally harder to run an independent cinema today than in years past. Small theaters offer moviegoers a homegrown entertainment venue, but steep competition from corporate chain theaters threatens their prominence.
Additionally, technological advances in the film industry often make it harder, or at least more expensive, for the little guys to compete. Such circumstances have forced independent theaters to alter the way they do business, but the necessary changes can actually benefit patrons.
Omnipresent megaplexes and their influence over studios and consumers alike make it difficult for small cinemas to even exist, says Chris Hamel, president of the Gateway Film Center.
“In the current business climate, the moviegoing experience is more about offering the most options to consumers as opposed to offering the best service or facility in which to see a film,” he adds.
That said, it made sense for GFC to move from 35mm presentation to digital cinema.
“This allows for much better presentation quality, flexibility of scheduling and additional offerings, such as 3D and alternative content, like concerts, ballet, opera, etc.,” Hamel says.
Showing independent films can help one’s theater stand out from the crowd. However, they also can present challenges because, amazingly, some studios make their films available on iTunes or video on demand before they’re even available to cinemas, Hamel says, sucking the business out of those films before their mass release.
Netflix and other instant streaming services also took the wind out of indie theaters’ sails, negatively affecting attendance.
“However, as these services have replaced both the video rental store and purchasing of DVDs, people are coming back to the cinema,” says Jeff Frank, director of the Drexel Theatre. “It’s still the cheapest out-of-the-home entertainment option, and the theatres have really improved their physical plants and technology, especially with digital sound and projection.
“Another important factor: only when you sit in the dark in a movie theatre with an audience do you get the full impact of the motion picture experience. You can’t replicate the shared experience of the laughing, sobbing, or cheering at the screen with a bunch of strangers!”
Similarly, Kara Bodle, general manager of the Arena Grand Movie Theatre, says that although people can watch a movie at home, they come to the theater for the larger-than-life experience and the opportunity to just get out.
“Watching from the couch just doesn’t provide the same experience,” she continues. “When people are at home, the laundry still needs done, phones are ringing, etc. There is just not the option to escape from everything and become completely immersed in the big screen experience.”
Despite better attendance rates, in 2009 a group of committed community leaders and arts patrons formed Friends of the Drexel Inc., an independent, not-for-profit organization created to secure and sustain the theater’s future.
Then in 2011, the Friends of the Drexel Inc. purchased the Drexel Theatre Inc.’s assets and converted it from a for-profit enterprise into a nonprofit organization. Friends of the Drexel also entered into an agreement with CAPA to manage the theatre on its behalf.
“After attending the Art House Convergence sponsored by the Sundance Film Festival over the past several years, I became convinced this made the most sense for a small three-screen, historic neighborhood theater to compete in today’s exhibition market,” Frank says.
By going nonprofit and teaming with CAPA, the theater has been able to redesign its website, start an onscreen advertising program, replace some of its aging HVAC systems, and start making major improvements in the theatre lobby− all over a relatively short period of time.
“There will be more major improvements in the near future,” Frank says.
Though they’re smaller in comparison, the Arena Grand has made changes as well.
“We have great appreciation for our loyal customers, so we have amped up our Grand Rewards Program to provide incentives, special offers, and unique perks to keep our most loyal fans coming back again and again,” Bodle says. “Of course, we have also added some digital 3D projection equipment to compete in the current marketplace.”
The Arena Grand has also begun sending weekly show times directly to the phones of patrons who subscribe to its mobile program.
Over the next few years, Frank foresees several changes in the theater realm, including improvements in cinema seating, in-theater dining, and “a hard look at ticket pricing,” as prices, especially for 3D films, are higher than the public would like.
“The cinema industry must also continue to work with distributors to bring more people back to the cinemas and maintain the theatrical window,” Frank continues. “If cinema releases go day and date with home movies on demand, people will not feel the urgency to go out to the cinema. It must maintain it’s special place as the engine that drives box office returns for all formats.”
Hamel contends that the evolution of alternative content is the next major change in the business.
“Audiences continue to flock to films, but other offerings that provide groups the opportunity to see things on the big screen, with other people who share adoration for these other forms of entertainment, really make the cinema more of an entertainment complex,” he says. “If you can’t make it to the big game, or your favorite band isn’t stopping in your city as they tour this year, the movie theater can provide a pretty amazing alternative with it’s giant screen and unbeatable sound systems.”
Ultimately, though, corporations that continually build in nearly saturated markets make it increasingly challenging for independent exhibitors to maintain a strong and influential presence in the marketplace.
“This is why it is so vital and important for members of the community to remember independent local businesses when making their moviegoing decisions,” Bodle says.