NEWS- Art house: Websters open new 'groovy' indie cinema
Moviegoers in Charlottesville have it pretty good. While three multiplexes show almost every major studio release, more esoteric offerings are available at the University of Virginia, the Virginia Film Festival, and the 219-seat Vinegar Hill Theatre. Still, though, acting teacher David Webster says he sees a niche that has yet to be filled.
"People don't like going to the movies because the prices are too high, the seating arrangements are antiseptic, and the food gives you a gross feeling," he says.
That thinking led Webster and his wife, Una, to start screening independent films at their Webster Studio on East Market Street. Since opening night a month ago, Webster says, every Friday and Saturday night, he and his team have put together a completely different kind of moviegoing experience.
"We've set up a groovy atmosphere," he says. "We have a 50-seat theater with easy chairs and healthy snacks like apples and pears in addition to more traditional stuff like chocolate."
So what's all this groovy atmosphere going to cost the customer? It's a grand total of five dollars for admission, and no snack costs over three dollars. And Webster says attendees can always count on going home with a smile.
"We will always bring in films that have been well received at festivals, but are also really fun," he says.
Picking those titles is a labor of love for Webster, an Emmy-winning filmmaker who says he considered hundreds of different titles before settling on the theater's inaugural show: Air Guitar Nation, a documentary about two American faux-shredders' attempt to win the Air Guitar World Championship in Finland.
"I was hoping it would be a 7 or an 8 out of 10 when I heard about it," says Webster, "but it turns out it's around a 9.5."
While such unconventional movies and amenities might be a nice change of pace for audiences, Webster admits the scheme has yet to pan out as a business model.
"Crowds have been thin, between five and 15, usually, and I'm paying for it all myself with my acting students' tuition," he says. "But we're hoping if we keep prices low and we get the word out, we'll get more business."
Though there's already one art-house theater in town, Webster says he doesn't see his new venture in competition with Vinegar Hill.
"We love Vinegar Hill, and we hope people go to Vinegar Hill, too," he says, "but we try to focus on more consistently fun movies."
Virginia Film Festival director Richard Herskowitz says he shares Webster's belief that Charlottesville can support both the 31-year-old art-house establishment near the Mall and the new indie upstart closer to the Woolen Mills.
"What [the Websters] assume is that there's a sophisticated audience looking for more adventurous work," he says. "I think they're going to be successful in creating a community club atmosphere in getting films that are more specialized than Vinegar Hill shows."
Vinegar Hill seems to welcome the new operation. "I feel nothing but good about it," says Vinegar Hill manager Hain Laramore. "If we had two screens, we'd play more obscure stuff."