Regal crowned? Indie theater owner predicts Carmike's doom
Next month's debut of a new Regal 14-plex will nearly double the number of theater screens in Charlottesville. And according to the last independent theater owner, the opening of the Regal will trigger a shake-out that will drive its major competitor out of business.
"Carmike will close," predicts Adam Greenbaum, the owner of the one-screen Vinegar Hill Theatre on Market Street. "It's definitely going to be a Regal town."
While neither Regal nor Carmike would make officials available for comment on Greenbaum's pronouncement, he says it's a matter of simple economics– and the fact that Charlottesville is what is known in the movie business as a "closed" market.
"Charlottesville is a closed town," says Greenbaum. "Only one theater at any time can be showing the same movie."
That's not the way it's supposed to be. The practice of studios limiting their pictures to just one theater per market was one of several anti-competitive policies supposedly outlawed in the landmark 1948 Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.
"Nothing's written down," says Greenbaum, asserting the policy persists even though the Charlottesville metropolitan area has increased to the point that there should have sufficient population for free-market movie competition.
"The town has grown," says Greenbaum, "but the status hasn't changed because the players didn't want it to change."
Regal currently operates a six-screen theater on the Downtown Mall and a four-screener beside the Seminole Square shopping center, and its officials have not disputed claims that the Seminole facility will close upon the opening of the new across-the-highway multiplex in the soon-to-open Shops at Stonefield.
Located along busy Hydraulic Road, the new Regal will offer digital surround sound and Imax capability along with stadium seating in every auditorium for an unobstructed view. This structure was preliminarily valued at $11 million on its building permit.
Meanwhile, tiny Vinegar Hill, which opened in 1976 and which Greenbaum purchased four years ago, plans to continue its strategy of showing acclaimed indie pictures– and in preparation for Hollywood's intention to stop circulating 35-millimeter film– to digitize by next spring. Greenbaum says he'll cover the estimated $60,000 cost by selling t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and other paraphernalia bearing the Vinegar Hill logo.
"We certainly intend to stay and show the kind of movies that Regal is never going to play, but unfortunately we have to make this conversion to show anything," he says.
If the closed-town practice seems consumer-unfriendly, Greenbaum notes that it does provide a greater variety of film.
Charlottesville lost two theaters, both discount cinemas, in the new millennium. in early 2000, Regal shuttered its Greenbrier twin; and this reporter sold the Jefferson Theater, also a twin, to become a music hall in the spring of 2006.
As for Carmike, it has a mixed history. Erected in 1992 at the Gardens Shopping Center adjacent to Albemarle Square, this was the theater whose northerly strip-center location reportedly inspired developer Lee Danielson to build the downtown Regal. In 2007, the Carmike became the first Charlottesville theater to digitize. Two years later, however, incidents of faulty heat and falling ceiling tiles had some wondering how committed Carmike was to the movie-going experience.
Greenbaum, who says another corporate theater manager shares his view, doubts that Carmike will get a chance to upgrade its facilities now that Regal has invested in such an ambitious facility with the comforts to grab patrons and the capacity to grab all the biggest pictures away from Carmike.
"Regal," says Greenbaum, "will just shut them out."