Owner Denise Mahon walks up the stairs to make sure the film starts smoothly. She enters the dark room above the theater, and the blue lights from the projector glow. The projection machine hums quietly, and Mahon looks up at the big screen through the tiny control booth window to see that everything is working properly. Most theaters have seemingly endless previews, but here there is only one. Varsity regulars know not to be late.
The room quiets and the lights dim. People settle into their green-blue seats, and the film begins. Of the 30 people in the theater, most are regulars who received a warm welcome from Mahon as they walked in. The Varsity Theatre has been forging customer relationships like those since 1955, when Mahon’s father, Bev, bought it. “He has a lot of clients that he’s built up through the years that come no matter what we play. They just trust our judgment in films,” Mahon says, who took over the theater after her father passed away five years ago. “We’re on a first-name basis with a lot of them. … It’s the little things that you’re not going to get at a multiplex.” And the little things keep the indie theaters fighting against the multiplexes.
Movies are getting easier to stream at home, and the ever-changing digital equipment makes it more expensive to keep a theater open. Today, nearly 90 services stream movies and television shows, and the burden of purchasing new equipment challenges many theaters. It can cost $40,000 to $70,000 per screen to convert to digital projection. While some have made the switch, many are finding other ways to stay relevant. To these independent movie theaters, it’s not a state-of-the-art machine that pulls in audiences. It’s the experience.
Filling A Niche
Jon Petersen, general manager of the Fleur Cinema & Café, also in Des Moines, recognizes the need to offer a different experience. The lobby is meant for lounging, with cozy couches and contemporary seating. Colorful movie artwork lines the walls, and the concessions go beyond the traditional movie fare offering cheesecake, brownies, beer, and wine. “If we can give people a good atmosphere in which to see that [film] up on the screen that they want to see, then that certainly helps,” he says.
Some theaters keep their old-school Hollywood feel with historic interiors. Some, like the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, Minnesota, have a strong interest in the classic film experience. And others still find a way to appeal to everyone—showing everything from video games to television shows. Above all, though, the theaters appeal mainly to moviegoers who appreciate film.
Danny Ladely, the director at The Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is always mindful of finding the balance between movies that will draw in large crowds versus films that are artistically important. He watches “screeners,” DVDs sent to him before a film is released. When Mahon isn’t running the Varsity concessions, she’s reading film journals studying reviews and deciding what films would best draw in her audience. “A lot of the films that we play give you something to think about,” Mahon says. “They’re not just cars blowing up and chases. They have substance.”
Jeff and Chris White have been going to the Varsity Theatre for nearly 20 years now, and they say that the quality is a huge part of the reason they visit the Varsity about once a month. “They have some very good movies here that are simply not carried in larger chains of theaters,” Jeff says.
But indie movie theaters can’t always rely on regulars like the Whites to keep their doors open.
Tom Brandau, a professor of film at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says that when independent theaters do die out, economic factors are to blame. “They could not afford to purchase the necessary digital projection equipment in order to continue to show a lot of the films that were being released,” Brandau says. “So they basically just gave up and closed their doors.” The Internet and streaming movies from home create competition as well. Streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu let moviegoers watch films in the comfort of their own homes. “The shift is going more and more toward just putting your work online,” Brandau says. “If you really want to get your stuff seen, you just go ahead and get a Vimeo account and put it out there.”
Theaters don’t always have to look at these new mediums as competition; sometimes the things people generally do at home can bring in business. In addition to film, The Orpheum Theater in Fairfield, Iowa, regularly plays free television shows like “The Walking Dead” and Hawkeye football games. People come for the caramel popcorn and community that Netflix doesn’t offer.
Kembrew McLeod, professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, says that it’s the independent theaters that “found a market niche that hasn’t been satisfied by other chain theaters.”
“In many ways,” he says, “it’s more convenient to just stream something at home. But it’s not the same as being able to go out with friends and experience the movie and talk about it afterwards.”
The Films Keep Rolling
When the Fargo Theatre in Fargo, North Dakota, had to face the digital conversion, it turned to the community to find support — and the locals didn’t let the theater down. Emily Beck, the theater’s executive director, said the theater raised the $200,000 needed to install technical improvements. And while those donations help with big projects, Beck says ticket and popcorn sales really keep the theater going. “The people who come every week to see what we’re showing, those are the people who are really keeping the doors open,” she says.
So far, the Varsity Theatre hasn’t succumbed to the pressure to go digital, but hopes to keep higher prices and more expenses out of the picture. “I’ll hopefully see it [the theater] growing,” Mahon says. “Hopefully we keep our prices down. Dad just felt strongly that everybody should be able to afford a movie. Our matinees right now, they’re $5. We want you to come back.”
As the film draws to a close at the Varsity Theatre, the audience lingers while the closing musical score plays and the credits roll. Most stay until “The End” fades off the screen. The garbage can fills with popcorn buckets and cups. One showing done, and it’s on to the next.
Independent theaters across the Midwest
Fargo, North Dakota
Not only can viewers check out the latest films on screen, but they can also watch live community entertainment as well. The historic theater kept its Vaudeville stage in one of the two auditoriums for live events when films aren’t on the screen.
Contact: (701) 239-8385
The Orpheum Theater
Along with regular film screenings, The Orpheum hosts free viewing parties for shows like “The Walking Dead” and University of Iowa football games. Another plus? The beer is always on tap.
Contact: (641) 209-5008
The Heights Theater
Columbia Heights, Minnesota
The theater has been remodeled to its 1926 appearance, giving it a historical detail not seen in many theaters. Classic film–lovers will appreciate the showings, and it’s become a citywide destination.
Contact: (763) 789-4992
Iowa City, Iowa
Like other indie theaters, FilmScene boasts beer and wine for moviegoers. It offers a more intimate experience with only 85 seats in the theater. During the summer, it hosts special film events and series on the rooftop patio.
Contact: (319) 358-2555
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Michigan Theater is home to the local symphony and hosts special film series to draw in audiences. These series appeal to hard-core film junkies and specific genre-lovers alike.
Contact: (734) 668-8397
Top 5 Art House and International Movies
Rotten Tomatoes is one of the most trusted sites for movie reviews. Here is it’s list of the top-rated indie films of all time , perfect options for your next night in.