Little cinemas are thriving as they aggressively market experiences customers can’t get elsewhere
by ANOUSHA SAKOUI
IN A summer movie season Hulk-smashed by Marvel’s Avengers, here’s a surprise ending: Little cinemas — the kind that usually don’t show superhero extravaganzas — are thriving.
One reason: They aggressively market experiences customers can’t get elsewhere.
Take, for example, the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. It’s currently a time machine, transporting filmgoers to a fairy-tale version of the late 1960s.
Old and invented movie posters decorate the lobby. Vintage candy, like Goobers and Chuckles, is sold. A trailer is screened for the 1968 thriller “Rosemary’s Baby”.
It’s all to create an immersive atmosphere for the main feature, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, the 2019 film set in 1969. Its director, Quentin Tarantino (picture), owns the New Beverly.
“You can live in the past for a couple of hours,” actor Jon Donahue, who’s seen “Once Upon Time” at the New Beverly four times, said in an interview. “Everybody needs that kind of magic again. It shouldn’t be like watching a television show on a giant screen with a bunch of strangers.”
In a world where New York’s prototypical art-house cinema, the 71-year-old Paris Theatre, closed down last month, where studios are getting bigger and new streaming services are popping up like hungry teens at meal time, Tarantino’s quirky, single-screen, superhero-free venue sold out 55 nights in a row and added showings at 10am and midnight to accommodate the throngs.
“People still enjoy the theatrical experience, especially when it’s something special,” said Alison Kozberg, MD of the Art House Convergence, a trade group. As streaming has exploded, “special experiences are all the more important”.
Kozberg’s organisation defines art-house cinemas as “community-based and mission-driven”, but any repertory theatre that exhibits fringe, vintage or foreign-language films would qualify. Of the 5,869 theatres in the US, about 300 meet the criteria, according to Kozberg’s group.
At the Austin, Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse, patrons can drink beer and eat dinner in their seats. The 40-location chain has a seven-screen theatre in downtown Brooklyn and plans to open a 14-screen facility in Manhattan’s Financial District.
Unlike the Paris, which showed artsy foreign films and documentaries tailored to a sophisticated audience, Alamo Drafthouse shifted its strategy over the years to offer a mix of movies that includes — gasp — the latest blockbusters along with more high-brow fare.
“I see strong audiences,” said Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse’s CEO. “People still want to get out of the house and have fun.”
The chain adopted a subscription model popularised by MoviePass. Films such as “The Farewell”, “Booksmart” and “Midsommar” have been 35hits for Alamo, League said.
And there’s the unique experience to draw customers.
Alamo Drafthouse offered a Pakistani menu, selected by actor Kumail Nanjiani, during screenings of 2017’s “The Big Sick”; African food for last year’s “Black Panther”; and a pizza with Hawaiian and British touches to celebrate the backgrounds of the two stars, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Jason Statham, of the currently playing “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”.
Unlike the bigger chains, Alamo Drafthouse doesn’t view Netflix Inc as an adversary, League said.
The chain is a marketing and content partner for the streaming service. It screened Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “Roma” last year when the big theatre chains wouldn’t, and is in talks to show Netflix’s upcoming “The Irishman”, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and directed by Martin Scorsese.
In another departure from standard big-chain procedure, Alamo Drafthouse doesn’t hold distributors to a three-month window of exclusivity before movies can be made available in homes, a rule that’s sacrosanct to major circuits.
Some little cinemas have assured continued survival by shifting from small businesses to nonprofit community art centres, according to Kozberg. Alamo Drafthouse was able to draw investment last year from private equity (PE) fund Altamont Capital Partners, helping the chain expand.
Studio Movie Grill, based in Dallas, also received PE money, from TowerBrook Capital Partners. The chain is opening a new venue in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, adding to its 333 screens in 10 states. The Glendale location will have 10 screens and heated recliners.
The company is trying to preserve old movie houses while adding amenities. The local community determines programming.
Manhattan’s Paris Theatre, an elegant cinema across the street from the Plaza Hotel, opened in 1948 with actress Marlene Dietrich cutting the ribbon. It announced on Aug 29, in a sign taped to its door, that its lease had ended.
The single-screen theatre, the last of its kind in the biggest US city, was showing Ron Howard’s documentary, “Pavarotti”, at the time of its closing.
The Paris’ fate shows how tough it can be for smaller movie houses.
As film studios such as Walt Disney Corp and 20th Century Fox combine, and in-home providers AT&T Inc and Time Warner Inc join forces, the fear is that blockbuster sequels and binge-watching of original content will squeeze independent theatres out of business.
But even AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc, the nation’s biggest chain, sees a market. It’s offering “AMC Artisan Films” to screen art-house flicks. Tim League is confident all kinds of cinemas will survive, even in the event of an economic downturn. After all, he said, people flocked to movies during the Great Depression. “It’s been tested,” he said. — Bloomberg