The theater is neither dying not diminishing. It is changing. But what about those theaters that do not have the resources or opportunity to grow and change? Are the smaller venues doomed to become obsolete?
Small theaters face many hurdles. Unpredictable box offices, rising studio retention rates, and economic threats constantly plague these brave little establishments.
It seems the only way to stay afloat is to pick the most predictable box office gold, but in a world where Pirates of the Caribbean 5 bombs and niche movies like Crazy Rich Asians make it on the top 10 for the summer, who can say?
But this does not mean small theaters are doomed.
Smaller theaters, despite existing in a very oversaturated media culture, have discovered a lot about themselves. The way they are staying alive is by catering to those that want them to survive.
This is the same way small bookstores are making a comeback, they know who their audience is and why they buy from them.
They cannot just try to make some sort of shotgun appeal and get the mass of crowds that chain theaters or streaming services attract. They know how to bring their audience in.
Meg Shields of Film School Rejects argues that small movie theaters are surviving by Harvard Business School professor Ryan Raffaelli’s “Three C’s,” curation, community and convening.
She compares staying in a streaming to just grabbing a beer from the fridge instead of going to a bar for it.
“Technically speaking, the beer is the same, but damn if it doesn’t taste different,” Shields wrote.
This is where smaller theaters have found their niche.
Whenever people are going to go to the hassle of paying a little more for a smaller theater and limiting their movie options, they’re there for the experience.
That is not to say other larger chain theaters do not have personality. Establishments like Alamo Drafthouse have fun concepts, like menu items specifically made for the film, and different theater experiences like IMAX can appeal for different reasons. Local theaters, though, have a wholesome appeal in their simplicity.
I cannot think of a smaller theater that is still around that I’ve been in that has not been brimming with personality and a certain charm. Whether or not it’s dumpy, crude or old, it feels magical and the experience is unique.
Additionally, if someone is going to the trouble of maintaining a small movie theater, they are likely passionate about the medium. This means they care about what is being played, whether it be the latest blockbuster, a niche awards season gem or classic reruns.
I still remember going on Saturday mornings in February to a local theater, the Allen, near my hometown in Annville Pennsylvania to see old cowboy movies with my dad. The showings of Roy Rodgers, Gene Autry and the Three Stooges in the creaky snug velvet seats and a pervasive smell of must are some of my favorite childhood memories.
You can’t get that through Netflix.
Since community support of businesses is a hot topic issue right now, local theaters need not worry, right?
After a record-setting Small Business Saturday, it seems as if supporting local businesses is culturally in. But this does not mean locally owned movie theaters are getting a pass.
Independent movie theaters have struggled significantly, but I believe that they are going through a “natural selection” type process. The theaters that matter most to the communities will survive.
This has already been seen in the survival of The Rio, a 1938 independent theater in Vancouver. The theater was revitalized by crowdfunding and support from celebrities like Kevin Smith and Ryan Reynolds, but this is a warning shot for other small theaters.
Small movie theaters might not always be safe. Whether they become obsolete or a nostalgic novelty, there is no promise that we will always have local venues like these. But as long as a group of passionate film loves, who pursue the experience as much as the film, seek out places like this and deem them worthy of their time and money, then they still have a shot.