Category Archives: Theatre Closures

How the Gates Family Foundation Saved Small Town Cinemas from Death-by-Digital

Fox Theatre Walsenburg

As the clock ticks down for the end of 35mm film prints, so the race is on to save the last few small town cinemas that cannot afford the switch to digital. We are now talking months, not years.

In the United States funds typically come from one or a mixture of three sources, all of which we have profiled here at Celluloid Junkie in the past: local community fund-raising, on-line crowd funding and even grants or donations from the local Chambers of Commerce. There was even an effort to tap the Pepsi Refresh Project a few years back, while Honda did something similar for drive-ins.

But philanthropic foundations have had a relatively low profile until a recent effort got underway in Colorado. While charities alone cannot save all the small cinemas across the US, the experience in the Centennial State shows that they can provide critical seed funding. Over the next 12 to 24 months, this can mean the difference between life and death for thousands of small town cinemas across the United States.

Colorado’s Rural Theater Digital Conversion Grant

The key to the success of Colorado’s venture has been the bringing together of three critical actors: State authorities,  non-profit bodies and private charities. As outlines last year in The Denver Post:

A number of foundations, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and the Denver Film Society have teamed up to create grants ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 for theaters converting to the new digital equipment required by the film industry.

Film distributors, which no longer distribute traditional celluloid prints, have converted to digital format. The new distribution method requires digital projectors, which cost an average of $60,000 to $70,000 each.

The state said many rural theaters can’t afford these projectors and will probably close, threatening the arts, culture and fabric of the community.

The last sentence has been crucial in mobilising government, business and philanthropic support, as we will see.

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‘World’s Largest Cinema’ Set To Be Demolished


Demolitions of old cinemas rarely makes the news beyond the local newspaper and TV station, but Studio 28 in Wyoming, West Michigan is not just any old cinema. In 1988 it became the world’s first megaplex, as well as being the world’s largest cinema, and to this day hold the highest single-day attendance record figure for any cinema in the world.

 Taking its name after the street where it was located, Studio 28 was opened on Christmas Day 1965 as a single-screen 1,000 seat cinema by exhibition pioneer Jack Loek, next to Loeks’ Beltline Drive-In. Loek who would go on to make Studio 28 the flagship cinema of Jack Loeks Theatre. This in turn would become what is today known as Celebration Cinema, as created by Jack’s son John. Studio 28, meanwhile, expanded to two screens in 1967, six screens in 1976, 12 screens in 1984 and 20 screens in 1988. The seating had grown to a staggering 6,000 places.

Studio 28 was the world’s first megaplex (defined as a multiplex with 20+ screens), overtaking the 18-screen Eaton Centre Cineplex. According to Wikipedia, “The theatre broke a single day attendance record on November 29 1990 serving 16,000 guests, a record which still remains unbroken.” It was the day after Thanksgiving and films showing at that time were Dances With Wolves, Jacob’s Ladder, Home Alone and Rocky V, with Misery set to open the following day. Theatre One had a large curved screen and THX specs, woth all other screens having stadium seating.

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Studio 28 was soon overtaken by other megaplexes and saw declining attendance, a reported 75% drop in attendance in the dozen years since 1996.

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Why Digital Alone Won’t Kill Second Run Movie Theatres

Screenshot 2014-03-03 16.37.52

The threat that the digital conversion poses to single-screen and drive-in cinemas have been highlighted several times on (here, here and here), but there is a third category of cinemas that also face an existentialist threat with the phasing out of 35mm prints. Second-run cinemas, also called discount theatres, dollar theatres, dollar movies and sub-run theatres have built a business on showing film prints and films no longer playing in regular cinemas, typically one or two months after the film’s opening; a business about to go away.

While mostly found in the US, they also exist in other major cities around the world, where they mop up the last theatrical box office takings a film is likely to see before it moves on to download, DVD/BD, streaming and pay-television. Favoured by large families, pensioners, students, unemployed and the working poor, these cinemas have always constituted a way to get a sprinkling of big screen magic, even if the seat was creaky and the floor was sticky, for as little as a dollar.

Silver Screen

Screenshot 2014-03-03 16.38.13

The recent closure of the eight screens Silver Cinemas South Hills in upstate New York’s Wappingers Falls (pop 5,488) after 16 years of providing low-cost entertainment to the town was a stark illustration of this sector’s death spiral. On Tuesdays films there were just $1 and the rest of the week they were still only $2. Patrons there will instead have to go to Regal (Hoyts) Cinemas Galleria Mall 12, or there is the Overlook Drive-in one of the rare all-digital drive-in cinemas. The cinema had lost its lease, but the writing has been on the wall since it became clear that it would never show The Wolf of Wall Street since no 35mm print was made for the film’s North American release.

With its closure the number of Silver Cinemas shrank from eight locations to seven, dropping from a total of 55 screens to 47. The chain is an interesting operation, being a division of Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment art-house exhibition arm Landmark Theatres. It is not the only low-cost arm of a major exhibitor. Other major chains often keep a smaller multiplex open even after they open a newer and larger mega/multiplex nearby, by turning them into a second-run cinema.

This was for example the case with Regal Cinema’s Bellis Fair 6 in Washington state. This too has now closed. In UK there is the Odeon Panton Street that shows slightly older films, particularly art-house ones, which is probably the last cinema in central London where tickets cost less than £10 (yes, that’s considered ‘budget’ by West End standards).

Dollar and Sense of Second Screens

The economics of second run cinemas is very straightforward. Rental terms deals between distributors and exhibitors have a steep drop-off after the first week, with films increasingly going ‘wide’, ie on as many screens as possible, in the opening week. This is especially the case in peak seasons such as summer or major holidays with a glut of releases.

A film is thus more profitable to exhibitors the longer it plays in cinemas, because a larger proportion of each box office dollar is kept by the cinema. So while Disney is no doubt pleased that Frozen has grossed over $1 billion worldwide (and become the studio’s first non-Pixar film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film), it is cinemas that are cheering that it has been playing to families for weeks and weeks on end.

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Michigan’s Rialto Theater Calls Attention to the Endangered Future of Small Town Cinemas

On Wednesday the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed piece by Jordan Stancil, who operates the Rialto Theater in Grayling, Michigan, providing him a forum to plead the case for saving independent cinemas, specifically those in small towns. With the conversion from 35mm film to digital projection, such theatres are finding it difficult or impossible to afford digital cinema equipment and are in danger of shuttering.
As we near the completion of the digital cinema conversion in North America, and as distributors (purposefully or forcibly) end the support of 35mm film the issue has slowly been gaining wider attention. Stories with headlines such as “Small Cinemas Struggle As Film Fades Out Of The Picture“, which ran on National Public Radio in January, are sure to be popping up more frequently, just as a year or two earlier the same outlets were running stories like “Ohio Movie House Screens Its Last Reel-To-Reel“.

It’s obvious why the Los Angeles Times would want to jump on the band wagon of this matter given their ties to a city dominated by the motion picture industry. They even went a step further by allowing a theatre owner to make a direct and impassioned appeal to readers. What’s more, the essay is as well written as the “Restore the Rialto Theatre” Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign it is meant to promote. This is despite a few suggested solutions which are non-starters or need more thought. More on this in a moment.

Presently no one is certain exactly how many cinemas are facing closure if they don’t convert to digital. The National Association of Theatre Owners put the number between three and four thousand screens at the Inter-Society meeting this past January. Like the Rialto, many of these theatres are located in small, remote towns of only a few thousand residents.

What makes the Rialto such an interesting case is that the cinema was originally founded in 1915 by Stancil’s great-grandfather. The theatre has remained family run throughout its history, which includes a fire that destroyed the original building. Before sound was brought to movies, Stancil’s great-grandmother provided piano accompaniment during showings. It very well may have taken the care, love and appreciation of a family to keep the Rialto afloat for almost 100 years. As Stancil explains in his piece, that family extends beyond his own to the citizens of Grayling for whom the theatre means quite a lot:

“When I consider what the Rialto means to this town of 1,884, I sense what a blow to rural America this loss of movie houses will be. The independent movie theater retains an outsize role in these communities that is quite unlike that of a city or suburban multiplex. In Grayling, our Art Deco theater (rebuilt in 1930 after a fire) is the architectural landmark on the main street of town. It is the only venue that draws large crowds to downtown year in and year out. Quite apart from any historical importance, closing this theater would irreparably deform the center of our town.

There is more at stake than just the fate of a speck on the map of northern Michigan. Small-town movie theaters still have a national purpose: the integration of far-flung places into our national culture. Every time we show a blockbuster on opening night, every time we screen a documentary or a foreign film, every time our audience feels empathy for a character the likes of whom they might never encounter in real life, we are issuing a reminder: yes, this little town is part of the wider world.”

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AMC To Shutter First U.S. Megaplex

The Grand 24.jpgHave you ever wondered what the difference was between a multiplex and a megaplex? It’s not a question that keeps me up at night, but every so often I’ll read about a theatre which is described as a megaplex and it will cross my mind. I mean, how many screens does a theatre need to have in order to be considered a megaplex? Fifteen? Eighteen? Or is it anything over 20 screens?

This rhetorical question was answered last week when AMC Entertainment announced they would not be renewing their lease on The Grand 24 in Dallas, TX., the first megaplex ever built in the United States. Several news stories, including one in the Los Angeles Times, defined a megaplex as any theatre with 14 or more auditoriums.

I could be faulted for burying the lead here, which is that AMC will be closing the historic venue after it couldn’t reach new lease terms with the property owner Entertainment Properties Trust. In a written statement Gerry Lopez, Chief Executive of AMC, the nation’s second largest theatre chain, said of the venue’s closure:

“It’s disappointing that we have not come to terms on a historical, and to us, a somewhat sentimental property. But in our opinion, the proposal advanced by EPT is simply untenable. We continue to negotiate with EPT on several other properties and will see where those discussions take us.”

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Will digitization lead to cine-carnage in UK?

Derilict Hoxton cinemas

Derelict Hoxton cinema

Opinion pieces and leader column in UK media have been alive with the debate about whether the imminent switch to digital cinema (imminent, once the credit crunch is over, that is) will lead to death and carnage amongst the smaller cinemas on the British Isles.

The debate was triggered by a comment by the UK Film Council’s Peter Buckingham that whilst the UKFC had funded 240+ screens conversion to digital, the UK Government will not bail out at-risk cinemas (unlike at-risk banks, one hastens to add). From the Telegraph:

Peter Buckingham of the UK Film Council warned that 300 independent cinemas – many in rural areas – are in series danger of closing because they can’t afford the transition.

“If they haven’t got digital they aren’t going to have anything to show in five years time,” he told The Times. “I don’t know what Plan B is – there is no public money available.”

The major multiplexes, which account for about 85 per cent of film takings, have so far refused to use their economies of scale to help smaller cinemas convert. The UK Film Council estimates it would cost £50 million to update all the vulnerable cinemas.

Derelict Catform cinemas

Derelict Catford cinema

Pretty grim outlook. But over in the Independent, John Walsh argues that we have been here before:

The death of the nation’s independent cinemas has been predicted so often that hearing the news of another imminent demise is like seeing another re-run of The Great Escape. Britain’s old movie palaces have been heading the way of the stegosaurus for half a century, scuppered by television, bingo parlours, dwindling visitor numbers, too many crap movies chasing too few screens, and the rise of the all-conquering DVD. But I still wipe away a tear on hearing that the switch from celluloid to digital projectors and servers may drive smaller cinemas out of business.

A very measured assesment was offered by Screen International’s always-worth-reading editor Mike Gubbins, writing in The Times (‘The inability to evolve has darkened screens before’), with the first paragraph particularly worth pondering:

The switch to digital cinema has barely touched the consciousness of the public. Some may be aware of the hype surrounding 3D, while others may have seen an opera screened at the local cinema, but this is not a demand-led transformation.

The industry debate between those in favour, who hope to see greater choice, and opponents who fear more efficient domination of the Hollywood studios has rarely reached the public domain.

But the digital divide might become an ugly reality if large numbers of cinemas close. Stroll along any high street and see if you can spot the ornate frontage that was once a cinema.

For a sad reminder of previous cinemas that are now gone, visit’s cinema page.

National Amusements Shutters Three Theatres

The marquee outside the now closed Atco Multiplex Cinemas

The marquee outside the now closed Atco Multiplex Cinemas

The Boston Globe is reporting that National Amusements is closing two of its theatres in Massachusetts.  The Showcase Cinemas Lawrence 1-6 which opened in 1965 and employed 30 people, was shut down on Monday.  The Circle Cinemas in Brookline, which employed a staff of 21, will hold it’s final screenings on September 7th.

Of the two theatres the Circle Cinemas was by far the more historic venue.  It originally opened in 1946 as a single screen theatre called the Circle Theater, though was also known as the Cleveland Circle.  In 1976, the Cinema was divided in half and given the name Circle Cinemas.  The theatre developed into one of the best in Boston and in its heyday played most of the major releases.  The theatre booked mostly Paramount films, which is no surprise since National Amusements is owned by Sumner Redstone, the owner of Viacom, the parent organization of both Paramount Pictures and CBS.  (Editorial Addendum: Redstone did not purchase Paramount Pictures until 1993).  One such film was “Love Story” which played at the Circle Theatre for over a year six months starting in 1970.

Toward the end of its run the two theatres inside Circle Cinemas had been divided into seven awkward spaces.  Patrons often faulted the venue for having small theatres with tiny screens.  Read More »

National Theatre Demolished In Los Angeles

National Theatre in Westwood Village

The National Theatre, the last single screen movie theatre to ever be built in the United States, is presently being demolished in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Since the fall of 2006, when Mann Theatres was forced to give up the lease on the 1112 seat theatre due to increased rent, the future of the National has been in doubt. Now, according to UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, the National Theatre is presently being torn down to make way for a single story retail outlet reported to be a Banana Republic clothing store.

National General Corporation first opened the National Theatre on March 27, 1970 playing ‘The Boys In The Band’. At the time the National was the 289th theatre to be opened by National General Corporation. Mann Theatres picked up the lease on the National when they purchased National General Corporation in the early 1970′s and for more than 36 years the theatre went on to host some of the biggest blockbusters and most critically acclaimed films of all time including ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Deer Hunter’, ‘Superman’ ‘Star Trek’, ‘Rain Man’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Gladiator’.

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