Slumdog: Vinegar Hill's thrill

Adam Greenbaum took over Vinegar Hill Theatre last fall and scored a huge hit with Slumdog Millionaire.

While Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire has made millions of moviegoers feel good, it's made one local theater owner feel even better.

"We were so lucky," says Adam Greenbaum, who bought the struggling Vinegar Hill Theatre last fall and immediately had a tough decision to make about his movie lineup.

"Fox Searchlight told me we could have The Wrestler or Slumdog," Greenbaum recalls. "At that point, I hadn't seen either, so it was a toss-up."

Greenbaum says the already brewing advance buzz on Slumdog led him to go with his gut, and he booked the film to begin December 19 (following Rachel Getting Married and Happy Go Lucky). Two months– and more than $100,000 in ticket sales at Vinegar Hill Theatre alone– later, it seems Greenbaum's gut was right on the money.

"I'm constantly amazed," he says, recalling several weeks in January where even the usually less crowded 4pm shows sold out in the 219-seat theater. While Slumdog has done well at Greenbaum's second theater, Visulite Cinema in Staunton, Greenbaum says it's done "incredibly well" in Charlottesville. In fact, Greenbaum says that according to Nielsen numbers, Slumdog is the highest grossing movie in Charlottesville since last year's The Dark Knight, and he believes it has a chance to outsell even last summer's James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

Whereas blockbusters like those tend to do huge numbers on opening weekend and gradually decline, Slumdog has racked up ticket sales by word of mouth over months.

"Our fourth weekend was twice the size of our opening weekend," he says. "That's so rare."

(Back in 2000, Vinegar Hill had a long-running hit with Life is Beautiful. In 2003, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had its own extensive run, and Little Miss Sunshine filled the theater for weeks in 2006.)

Such word-of-mouth hits, says filmmaker and former Vinegar Hill employee Alexandria Searls, are what allow art house theaters to stay afloat as they bring in the lesser known and less lucrative films throughout the year.

"You take risks on quite a few, hoping that one will give you what you need," says Searls, adding "it's great" that Greenbaum landed a moneymaker so quickly.

While Greenbaum is reveling in Slumdog's box office success, he hopes the benefits will go beyond ticket sales.

"The most gratifying thing is that it has allowed us to enter the consciousness of a lot of people who are new to Charlottesville or who for whatever reason had never been to Vinegar Hill," he says. "It's making people aware that we exist."