Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin)
Sunday March 13, 2011
BUSINESS SUNDAY; Pg. F1
KEEPING THE MARQUEE LIT; THEIR NUMBERS DWINDLE AS SMALL MOVIE THEATERS STRUGGLE TO STAY ALIVE;
By BARRY ADAMS badams 608-252-6148
The Strand is gone in Mount Horeb.
So, too, is the Rex in Mauston and the Odeon in Beaver Dam.
For the movie theaters that remain in downtowns around the state, the margins can be narrow, maintenance and utility costs high and the future uncertain in an age of changing technology, sleek multi-screen cinemas, Redbox movies for $1 and Netflix shows streamed directly to television.
That’s why the small theaters, most single-screen operations, are diversifying in an effort to maintain their tenuous hold.
In addition to movies, some are hosting musical concerts, plays and magicians.
One movie theater company has a program that allows video game enthusiasts to use their PlayStation and Nintendo game systems on the big screen for two hours. The $65 fee for four people includes unlimited soda and popcorn.
"It’s all about finding other revenue sources," said Jeremy Patnaude, general manager of State Theatres in Platteville, which also operates theaters in Boscobel, Lancaster, Dodgeville and Menomonie. "It’s utilizing what you have."
Movies are big business. In 2009 theaters sold 1.4 billion tickets that generated $10.6 billion. The number of screens has been on the rise, but the number of locations is declining, the result of single-screen theaters closing and the construction of massive multiplex theaters, some with restaurants and their own parking ramps, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.
A MOVE TO CLASSIC FILMS
The Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo used to compete with multi-screen cinemas in Lake Delton and Reedsburg. But over the last year, the theater has abandoned showing new releases and switched to classic and independent films. Showings have included "Casablanca" and the "Wizard of Oz." Over Labor Day weekend, "Jaws," originally released in 1975, hit the 17-by-39-foot screen. The Alfred Hitchcock thriller, "North by Northwest," is scheduled for March 25-26.
"They see it the way it was meant to be seen," said Brian Heller, executive director of the historic theater owned since 1989 by a nonprofit organization. "Just because it’s old doesn’t mean its entertainment value has diminished."
The theater, designed by noted architects Rapp and Rapp, was constructed in seven months in 1915 for $100,000. It’s considered one of the earliest examples of a movie palace and in 1976 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The theater, with an annual budget of $300,000, also hosts concerts, dance recitals and plays, and it also offers acting classes for children. Later this week, the Baraboo High School drama department will present "Godspell," which will likely fill most of the 775 seats, Heller said.
"We’re keeping with Al’s original vision as an asset for the community," Heller said.
COSTS TAKE TOLL
Wisconsin used to have hundreds of communities with movie theaters, but the number has declined over the years as independent owners have struggled to keep up with soaring utility, maintenance and technology costs and larger cinemas that offer more movies and amenities.
According to one website that tracks the demise of movie theaters, Wisconsin had almost 500 indoor movie theater locations including the Uptown and the Fort theaters in Fort Atkinson, the Reo in Rio, the Pastime in Horicon, and the Bijou in Beloit.
That number, according to www.cinematreasures.org, has dropped to about 150 locations.
Closings in Madison in recent years have included University Square, South Towne, Westgate and Hilldale theaters.
PROFITS ARE SMALL
Jesse Pittsley has owned the 189-seat Adams Theatre and video store, about 70 miles northwest of Madison in Adams since 1996. He and his son are the only employees. Tickets are $6, but the movie studio gets about 70 percent of the gate for a first-run movie. The percentage drops for older movies but that can lead to smaller crowds.
"People expect to have a first run," said Pittsley, who also owns a local automotive repair shop. "You can’t really afford to pay wages out of what we make, and video rentals are almost nothing."
He’s unsure how long the theater, which costs more than $4,500 a year to heat, can survive. He books the movies himself instead of hiring a booker and spends about 25 hours a week working at the theater. Bigger theaters are about 30 miles to the north in Wisconsin Rapids and to the south in Lake Delton.
"It’s very dim," Pittsley said. "If this theater ever closes in Adams, I don’t think they could ever get one back here."
In Boscobel and Lancaster, public/private partnerships are helping to keep the theaters in business. State Theatres bought the movie business in Boscobel in 2008 after Jim Theile died and had owned the business for 64 years. The city owns the building.
In Lancaster, the city also owns the theater and alternates each year with State Theaters on making capital improvements. This year, State will install new seating. In 2012, the city may put up a new marquee.
"Between the two of us with that relationship the theater continues to improve," Patnaude said. "We don’t want the old historic theaters to go away."
BONHAM CONSIDERS DIGITAL
Bonham Theatre & Video in Prairie du Sac competes with cinemas in Madison, Reedsburg, Lake Delton and Portage. The Bonham, constructed in the early 1920s, at one time had a single screen, but two smaller theaters were added in the early 1990s, each with just under 50 seats and 15-foot-wide screens.
Owners Connie Henry and her son, Chris Henry, purchased the theater, next to the Blue Spoon Café, in 2000 for $450,000. The business didn’t make a profit in 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 saw an increase in sales.
The theater uses film, but movie studios are pressuring theaters to go with digital technology. That change would require about $250,000 in equipment upgrades and the Henrys are trying to determine if it’s economically viable.
"We are thinking very carefully about it," said Connie Henry, who works full time as a nurse at Sauk Prairie Memorial Hospital. "The joke is I bought a very expensive popcorn maker, but we’re a part of the community."
MOVIE THEATER TRENDS
1995: 1.2 billion
2009: 1.4 billion
BOX OFFICE GROSS
1995: $5.2 billion
2009: $10.6 billion Source: National Association of Theatre Owners