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.

19 comments

Sounds good to me. Vinegar Hill is great and all, but the screen is small, the sound poor, and the seating pretty terrible. I wish them success, but if I have to see interesting films in the out-dated Regal, it's still a step up from Vinegar Hill.

Don't Regal and Carmike get access to different movies? So they won't actually ever be directly competing with each other? Went to the new Regal on Tuesday - theater is great, parking is a mess (surprise, surprise).

Bummer--though I think VHT can compete with the new Regal format, we will miss having first run movies that we can walk to, and hit a bar afterwards, and then walk home. I don't know why Regal can't have a hybrid.

Disappointed to hear parking is a mess, I guess they tried to stuff too much into that parcel of land.

I wonder if there is enough of a market for art films to support that many screens at the Regal Downtown. They should go to second run films, leave the art films to Vinegar Hill, and focus on the family crowd who would love to see a movie as a family without taking out a second mortgage.

I think it would be great to have a second run theater downtown again. Maybe do something like the ticket is $5 but you get popcorn and a soda.

Have old classics and do midnight movies on friday/saturday.

I predict the downtown Regal won't be there for long. Can't make a good living on indie films. Even blockbusters don't fill the theatres.

I guess the only way VH will be hurt is if Regal snatches up the "bigger" indie releases first. But I am happy to have 7 screens now available for indie and docs ... perhaps I can catch movies I always wanted to see in theaters and never could. Can we get "Holy Motors" in the next few months? Otherwise the new Regal theater is a fake IMAX hope everyone knows that ... what makes IMAX different from a normal theater is the SIZE. A true IMAX is 8 stories tall on an average. Don't be fooled by $17 ticket prices for a slightly bigger screen, but to each its own

Vinegar Hill would do well to consider thematically related double features, especially classics and obscure films,as the original owners did in the 1970s. Back in the day, they screened 3D movies from the 1950s, showed the Godfather and its first sequel on a double bill, featured some great creaky old horror films around Halloween and generally offered a lively and vibrant venue for film viewing and post-screening conversation.

Sure, you can watch many titles on your laptop or tablet via NetFlix, Hulu, etc., but there really is no substitute for seeing a great film on a large screen.

Use email and social media to promote the double features as an event, make a party of it, and get a special-event ABC license to serve wine and beer. The small Texas-based chain Alamo Draft House is a perfect example of an indepedently-owned theater surviving and even thriving in the era of megaplexes.

There is an awful lot of junk screening at the big chains, withc ticket prices in the $10 range.

Older films can be rented for less, allowing lower ticket prices.

Oh, and midnight screening were always a helluva lot of fun. Way before Hawes Spencer owned the Jefferson, it was known as the Movie Palace and before that held its original name of the Jefferson. Lots of crazy cinema played to packed houses after midnight and everyone had a blast.

This is a way of presenting films far different from the corporate mindset of churning over a fresh crowd every two hours after separating them from their money with overpriced popcorn and syrupy fountain drinks.

@Cinephile: You're missing the era when it was known as "The Cinema" and screened highbrow flicks like Barbarella, Shaft, and Blacula. And some blue movie stuff too.

http://www.readthehook.com/84222/cover-jeff-reborn

S'up, Dolemite? You were righteous in Disco Godfather, baby.

I also dig me some Pam Grier flicks and Kung-Fu bloodletting by the Run Run Shaw Studios. If you wanna get back to the Grindhouse days or rap about Eurotrash flicks, we can start with Jess Franco's mind-bending Venus in Furs.

Damn, Dolemite, you are badder than Shaft, smoother than Superfly. They paid hommage to your righteous ass in Black Dynamite (2009), starring Michael Jai White. Good movie. Not as good as yours, though.

Right on.

Cinephile out..

Addenda: Good article BTW on the history of the Jeff. Your piece?

Saw my first motion picture at the Jefferson in the 1960s. Life would never be the same.

Saw Jaws on its original theatrical run in 1975 at the long-gone University Theater. That was an amazing experience. People screaming and actually leaping out of their seats.

Saw Star Wars and a re-release of 2001 at the old Greenbrier.

Watched Allegro non Troppo at the Vinegar Hill in 1977, about a year after it wasd released in Italy. Ralph Bakshi's Wizards screened at the University Theater around the same time.

My first viewing of A Clockwork Orange was an afternoon weekday screening at the Terrace Theater, where I also saw Alien in 1979 and Roiger Moore's penultimate Bond film, Octopussy, in 1983..

Finsihing grad school in the spring of 1993, i saw Jurassic Park at the Carmike in June that year and, a decade later, the final installment of Lord of the Rings at the same venue, where I was amused to see adults dressed as Hobbits, standing in the parking lot barefoot in December, waiting to buy tickets and complaining about the cold as they hopped on alternating feet. (Fans will evidently sacrifice their health and comment snese for the sake of authenticity.)

Charlottesville has transformed through the years into a city I no longer recognize. And I no longer live there. But the cinema was always a constant for me and i made the rounds at all those old theaters during my formative years.

Again, good piece on the Jeff.

Cheers.

I merely found that link/story as I was searching for a chronology on the Jefferson. I'm still not over seeing young Jane Fonda in fur. And my introduction to the fully interactive African-American film experience watching Bruce Lee.

Allegro Non Troppo, with the Ravel score, and Fitzcarraldo were two of my watershed VHT moments.

Thanks for showing some respect. However when introduced at cotillions, debutante balls, and diplomatic functions I reserve the right to respond with the corrective "Dolemite mutha...."

Great ideas for revitalizing/protecting Vinegar Hill! There are many ways to distinguish it from the Regal's indie presence. Vinegar Hill does indeed have a community committing to supporting it, and as Hawes said, the movies are "curated," not just shown. I'm hoping the Regal doesn't snatch up all the best independent and foreign films before Vinegar Hill gets a chance to show them. Filling in with some classics and clever double-bills and midnight showings will be fantastic, ushering in a new era (based on other eras) for area moviegoers.

Thanks, Amy. As a native son of c-ville, I have fondness for the Vinegar Hill and would do anything I can, albeit from a distance, to help keep that venue alive.

I would bet there are at least two generations of Charlottesvillians who have never seen a film by Bergman or Jean Renoir, the son of the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. Yes, and Stanley Kubrick is about due for a revival. They could have a Hitchcock mini-festival with thematically related films such as The 39 Steps, Saboteur and North by Northwest, whose plots are fundamentally alike. Then enlist a UVa prof or film historian to lead a post-discussion screening with refreshments and a cash bar.

Make a club out of it. Turn it into a mixer for film lovers who are at least as passionate about the cinematic arts as 'Hoos are for their football and hoops.

There is no reason why C-ville can have only one film festival per year. Vinegar Hill could fill in the gaps year-round with mini-festivals and make some nice revenue on weekends to supplement indie screenings.

Cheers,

Former C-villian and devout cinephile.

I wish i could upvote Cinephile's post. I love the idea of having multiple smaller thematic mini festivals. You could also sell memberships/season passes.

I think it has been brought up in the past, but you should also do a kickstarter or seed-ville.com to pay for the digital projector.

@ Logan. Thanks. You sound like a brother in celluloid.

Digital projection may be the death knell for many small, independent theaters. Just as you can travel rural roads and see derelict gas stations,m where the owners could not afford tank upgrades after the environmental laws were changed, the cost of digital equipment may cause many small theater owners to close the curtains.

No less a cinema expert than Martin Scorsese has conceded that he has lost the fight to continue projecting films on,well, actual film.

IndieWire reported earlier this year (http://www.indiewire.com/article/were-about-to-lose-1-000-small-theaters...) that 20 percent of North American theaters may close due to the cost of digital conversion, for which the entry-level cost is $65-$70 grand.

It's a shame, because there is something cold and clinical about digital projection. It loses some of the warmth in the image that only celluloid can deliver. An imperfect analogy would be like listening to old jazz records on vinyl, then spinning the same recordings on CD, or playing them through an Ipod.

I'm not just waxing nostalgic (well, perhaps I am -- a little bit); there really is a discernible and preferable difference between film and processed 1s and 0s.

But no one in the industry listens to me. Nor, apparently, do they pay attention to Scorsese and his pals at the American Film Institute and Film Preservation Foundation.

Digital projection is designed to save the studios a boatload of money on the high cost of striking and distributing film prints. One print of a film costs about $2,000. When big pictures open simultaneously on 3,000+ screens, you're talking about serious coin.

One copy of a digitized film can be pushed to the server of any digital theater than wants to pay the fee for screening it.. By making theaters pay for the upgrades, the studios are poised to save themselves a fortune.

Under the current distribution system, if a studio releases 40 movies per year and strikes a conservative average of 2,000 film prints per feature, the math climbs rapidly:

40 films x 2,000 prints x $2,000 per print = $160M in annual up-front costs before the first ticket is sold.

Now you see why the studios are pushing digital projection.

TL; DR?

Digital projection is coming and small theaters need all the support they can get.

Hopefully once the upfront cost of the capital expense is out of the way then the costs on the "filming", production, distribution, projection and storage fronts will be less. Ultimately the switch to digital could be a real boon to small producers as well as small theaters.

That said, I do think we will eventually have a backlash against digital in film the same way that records are making a comeback now in music. So don't go throwing away that film projector.

Shucks maybe it's time for a backlit bedsheet and gamelan puppets.