Flick trick? The downtown Charlottesville Regal goes indie
Amid all the hullabaloo about the opening of the 14-screen stadium-seating Regal theater at the Shops at Stonefield, some other big Regal news seems to have escaped notice: on Friday, November 9, when the Stonefield megaplex officially opens, the Regal Downtown 6 will become an arthouse cinema, showing only independent and foreign films.
If the idea of an additional six movies that might not otherwise screen locally is appealing to local cinephiles, the owner of Charlottesville's existing arthouse theater strikes a cautionary note.
"In the short term, it's good for the customer," says Adam Greenbaum, owner of Vinegar Hill Theater. "In the long term, it's probably not so good."
There may be no one who understands the local market for indie films better than Greenbaum, who reopened Vinegar Hill back in 2008, one day after former owner Ann Porotti shut it down after years of financial struggle. At the time, he acknowledged that running the single-screen theater would be a challenge, but Greenbaum– who'd already found success with the renovated Visulite theater in Staunton– believed he could get the business back on track and says he's succeeded on that front.
"In all ways, I couldn't be happier with how it does and how people respond to the theater, both to the bigger art films and the smaller ones," says Greenbaum, citing Slumdog Millionaire and Black Swan as the strongest indie films in recent years. Even the lesser-known films do well at Vinegar Hill, he says, thanks to a "core small audience that has a hunger for those films and relies on us to bring them."
That success could be threatened by Regal's sudden transition, Greenbaum acknowledges, and the end result could be bad news for those who enjoy seeing independent or foreign films in a theater setting if Regal drives him out of business.
"My concern is that it's like Walmart coming in and dropping prices below locally owned competition, pushing that competition out of business, then jacking up prices," says Greenbaum, noting that if Vinegar Hill were gone, he doubts Regal would stick with indies.
"They're somewhat of a fair-weather friend," says Greenbaum, who recently predicted the demise of the Carmike 6 as a result of Regal's expansion.
"I don't know what Regal's long-term plans are," he says. "I just know that they want 100 percent of the market, and any way they can hold that, they will."
While Regal's Knoxville, Tennessee-based spokesperson Jon Douglas declined to respond to Greenbaum's claims, he does say that Regal's history of playing independent films dates back to 1999 when the chain launched its Cinema Art program. There are now 60 Regal theaters across the country that regularly play indie films, Douglas says, and 15 of them (including Charlottesville) do so exclusively. Additionally, Douglas says, Regal publishes a free magazine featuring the films that will be playing at the theaters to encourage audiences to consider films other than the blockbuster hits that come with their own mega-marketing machine.
Carmike corporate management did not return the Hook's repeated calls requesting comment.
While Greenbaum expresses concern, there is evidence that in Charlottesville, a theater's longevity– and its customer loyalty– can help the underdog trump Regal.
Back in the late 1990s, when the Jefferson Theater showed second-run films, and had existed as a theater for nearly 90 years, Regal operated the Greenbrier Theater in what is now home to Carden Jennings Publishing on Greenbrier Drive. When the Regal Downtown 6 opened in 1996, joining the existing Seminole Square theater, Regal suddenly had three local theaters– and too many screens for the number of titles available at any given time. Out of the blue, recalls former Jefferson Theater owner (and Hook Editor) Hawes Spencer, Regal converted its Greenbrier location to a second-run theater and undercut his $2 tickets by at least fifty cents.
"I figured that was the possible death knell to the Jefferson," Spencer recalls, "but as it turned out, people kept coming to the Jefferson, and on the few times I was on Greenbrier Drive and happened to go by the parking lot, it was always nearly empty."
The Greenbrier closed in approximately two or three years, Spencer recalls, while the Jefferson "stayed relevant and survived all the way to 2006," before it was purchased by Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw and converted to a music venue.
Could a similar situation unfold in which the venerable business prevails? Spencer thinks it's possible because Vinegar Hill is essentially "curated."
"A well run theater develops a relationship with its audience," says Spencer, "and Vinegar Hill is the epitome of a business that knows its audience. People know they can trust Vinegar Hill to choose challenging, quirky, unusual, off-the-beaten-track films."
Greenbaum says he plans to keep doing what he's always done and hope that audiences keep coming. And he notes that he has begun selling Vinegar Hill merchandise to raise funds to convert the facility for digital screening.
"Vinegar Hill has always been committed to art films, and we continue to be committed," says Greenbaum. "We fight to bring the absolute best movies, and I don't think Regal has a similar track record in terms of commitment to independent films."
–Story updated Monday, November 12 at 11:15 with Regal response.-ed.
– Correction March 15: Ann Porotti's name was misspelled in the original version.