Ten years ago, it was thought that the independent movie theater, like the corner drugstore or the neighborhood grocery, was marked for extinction by giant chain competitors. As the ’90s dawned, small businesses quaked at the coming of the “category killer,” an enormous specialty retailer that would dominate its niche, be it hardware (Home Depot) or playthings (Toys ’R Us) or electronics equipment (Best Buy). It could afford to stock a 10,000-square-foot facility. It could wrangle bulk bargains from suppliers. What it lacked in personality and customer attention, it could make up with discounts and a wider selectionat least in theory.
The category killer of film exhibition was the megaplex: More screens meant more product, and less risk of gambling a week’s box office on a single dud. The trend can be traced back nearly half a century, when the single-screen theater of the 1950s begat the twin-screen remodeling of the 1960swhich begat the mall cinema of the ’70s, which begat the megaplex of the ’80s. At the end of the 1990s, a building boom was peaking locally, as the chains rushed to open state-of-the-art theaters: Carmike Cinemas with its 20-screen Thoroughbred 20 at CoolSprings, Regal Cinemas with almost 60 new screens in just three years’ time.
With all those new screens, the chains should have squashed the indies. But something ironic has happened. One by one, the nation’s largest movie chains have filed for either bankruptcy or protection from creditors. In 2000, the list included United Artists, Edwards Theatres, Loews Cineplex, General Cinemas, and Silver Cinemas. It also included both Regal and Carmike, the nation’s first and third biggest movie chains, which control more than 7,000 screens nationwide (adding up to almost one-fifth of the country’s movie business) and most of the screens in the Nashville area.
The reason? The chains were strapped by the debts they’d taken on to build new plexes. At one point, Regal alone owed more than $1 billion. To streamline, the chains put an immediate halt to building and began shuttering theaters, mostly in overdeveloped locations. Carmike closed its CoolSprings Galleria 10-plex, made redundant by its own Thoroughbred, and left a swath of dark screens from North Nashville to Harding Mall. Regal shut down its Indian Lake and Courtyard theaters in the suburbs.
And the indies? Remarkably, some survive. At least 25 independently owned theaters still operate in Tennessee, from Johnson City to Centerville. A few are longtime family-owned enterprises, such as the MiDeGa in Waverly, named for three members of the Flexer family. Others are old theaters under new ownership, like the Franklin Cinema off the square in downtown Franklin. Now operated by Kelli and Marty English, it has outlived three Williamson County megaplexes, two of them just down the road. Still other theaters were saved by community activism, as in the case of the Belcourt, or by entrepreneurs who thought the conditionsor more importantly, the locationswere right.
“You won’t make a pile of money running your own theater now,” says Bill Brooks, a veteran Middle Tennessee exhibitor and now co-owner of Murfreesboro’s Premiere 6. “But the independent theaters haven’t done what these big theaters did eitherthey aren’t getting rich, but they aren’t in debt.”
While the megaplex is based on uniformitythe same movies, the same stadium seating, the same THX-approved sound, the same seats with armrest cupholdersthe indie theaters are less predictable, which is part of their value. They tend to reflect more of the character of their communities. “A person who opens his own theater doesn’t do it to make the same profit margin as a chain,” says film historian Douglas Gomery, whose book Shared Pleasures charts a century of film exhibition in America. “It may be a quasi-hobby, or it may serve a certain niche in the community. It may just be someone who doesn’t want stockholders breathing down his neck.”
Why should we even care about where we go see movies? Because, for one, the anonymity of the megaplexes has infected the films themselves. The megaplex is a shrine to reduced risk, and the current major-studio glut of sequels, remakes, and retreads reflects both studios’ and exhibitors’ obsession with an opening-weekend cash-inand little else. Chains are far less willing to risk offending patrons by showing controversial films. Local audiences would not have had a chance to see movies such as Priest or Crash if not for the guts of independent theater operators like the Franklin Cinema’s former owner Rusty Gordon, the only person in Middle Tennessee to show both films. Should the most controversial movie of the moment, the hardcore French outrage Baise-Moi, play a local theater, it will likely be the non-chain Belcourt in Hillsboro Village.
There is also sentimental value attached to these old-fashioned theaters. By the end of the century, most of Nashville’s single-screen movie theaters, from the Tennessee to the Inglewood to the Loews Melrose, had been razed or converted into business or retail space. But before their demise, they were places where some residents could chart their entire lives, from Saturday kids’ matinees to Friday-night dates to family outings. When the grand old Belle Meade Theater closed in 1991, its closing night was attended by grandmothers who had visited the theater’s Saturday movie club, and by couples who smooched in the mirrored balcony.
For whatever reason, the owners of Tennessee’s remaining independent theaters have managed to preserve vital pieces of community history. From Murfreesboro to Gallatin, the neighborhood theater is more than a projection area. It’s a yardstick that measures changing times and social standardseven the end of institutions such as segregation. All of these theaters must battle to stay open in an industry that is rigged against them. But in each case, the battles are worth fightingand capable of being won.
The oldest silent-movie theater in Tennessee still standing in its original location faces a strip of small stores in Gallatin, on Water Street just off the town square. In the early days of film exhibition, movie theaters were situated as close to the center of downtown as possible. In the case of Gallatin’s Palace Theater, that site was on a vacant lot next to Roth Jewelry, run by the Roth family since 1887. Gallatin businessman Bill Roth opened the Palace in 1913. At the time, Woodrow Wilson, the Archduke Ferdinand, and Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra were still alive. D.W. Griffith would not release The Birth of a Nation for another two years.
Its name to the contrary, the Palace was never as grandiose a cinematic cathedral as the Belle Meade or the Tennessee. A deep, cozy theater with a high screen, it has the dimensions of a shoebox, and the 425 seats it had in its heyday have since been whittled to 200. As a historic theater, the Palace has few of the amenities of the modern megaplexno stadium seating, no cup-holder armrests. What it has is character. The seats are nearly a century old. The wall sconces are originals, fashioned by Roth from tin and cut glass. The building next door housed a saloon in the 1800s, and one of its painted walls peeks through the Palace’s renovated lobby.
Bill Roth operated the Palace until his death in 1977. His son Bill Jr. ran it for 10 more years, until he shut it down in 1987. For years the theater sat padlocked, empty, and untended. Cobwebs draped the plastic poinsettias in the lobby. Pigeon carcasses rotted in the auditorium. Eighty years after its opening, in 1993, both the Palace and the adjacent Roth Building were sold at auction to Johnny and Sonny Garrott. Even combined, the two buildings brought only $20,000.
The Palace Theater would surely have been demolished, if not for the intervention of Donna Belote, the only paid employee of the Greater Gallatin nonprofit organization. Belote isn’t a Gallatin native; she says she isn’t even a big movie fan. But she saw the Palace as a personal challenge. “I wanted something down here to leave my mark on,” she says.
One of the Palace’s new owners, Sonny Garrott, happened to sit on the board of Greater Gallatin. “I think they bought it just as a favor to the auctioneer,” Belote says. She convinced Garrott that the buildings were worth more as tax write-offs than as property, and by the end of the year he had ceded the Palace Theater and the Roth Building to Greater Gallatin. By “begging, borrowing, and stealing,” Belote and Greater Gallatin were able to raise approximately $90,000, which went just to stabilize the buildings.
The next three years, though, were intensely frustrating. Volunteer efforts were enthusiastic and invaluable, Belote says, but as the project dragged on, interest waned. By the end of 1995, when she and her husband had invested countless hours in the theater with no end in sight, she says she was ready to give up. Hope arrived in the form of a government grant under the Intermodal System Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The ISTEA grant awarded Greater Gallatin $350,000, and when that came, Belote says, “I saw light at the end of the tunnel.” The cash was sorely needed: By the time the Palace and the Roth Building reopened last November, Belote estimates that the two buildings required $700,000 in restoration.
Today, the Palace is a multi-use performance space, with a stage for concerts and live theater, but it’s still Gallatin’s only movie theater. Every Friday night, it opens a new second-run family feature: The Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire ran recently, as did The Fast and the Furious. Showing second-run movies reduces the theater’s overhead, allows it to get product without competing with chains, and keeps ticket prices low. With admission $4 for adults and $2 for kids, and few items on the concessions menu above a dollar, a family of four can go to the movies in downtown Gallatin for $20. And longtime Gallatin residents can revel in memories. “A woman told me the other night, ‘Why, so-and-so kissed me right over there in that seat!’ ” Belote says.
Some memories are more bitter than sweet. Walk around back, and you’ll find a staircase sheathed in tin. The air inside is hot, thick, and unmoving. This was the Palace’s “colored-only” entrance. It had its own concession standa vending machineand its own bathroom. It led to the balcony that black citizens used for half a century, and the habit was so ingrained that many sat there long after the theater had been integrated. When the Palace reopened last year, a local barbecue caterer told Belote he’d been going to the theater all his lifeand this was the first time he’d ever been in the lobby.
The balcony is now used strictly for projection, and the auditorium is open to everyone. “I just think it’s important to have a theater downtown,” Donna Belote says. “People don’t have to drive to Nashville. Families can have a cheap night out, and they can see the theater again in really good condition. It’s something everyone can be proud of.”
Unlike the Palace, the newest indie exhibitor in the statethe Premiere 6 in Murfreesborowasn’t a historic theater. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a history. If nothing else, it reflects the accelerated mitosis of the American moviehouse. It opened as the single-screen Martin Theater in 1967, divided into the Martin Twin in 1973, was purchased by Carmike and subdivided in 1982, then split again in 1988by which point it was known as the Carmike 6. The cash-strapped chain shut the multiplex down last fall in an attempt to slash expenses.
For a moviehouse that underwent so many transformations, the theater was remarkably stable in one respect: In every incarnation, it was run by Joseph “Joe T.” Tomlinson, who worked in the theater business from 1944 until his death last November. Tomlinson was so well respected within the Martin chain that he was once tapped to oversee the entire Nashville market. Even when the theater turned into the Carmike 6, it consistently outperformed theaters in larger cities, and it frequently led the entire chain in yearly sales of Christmas adsthanks to the relationships Tomlinson cultivated with local businesses.
When the Martin opened in 1967, Bill Brooks was in the projection booth. He was 13, drafted as a relief projectionist by his Scoutmaster, who oversaw the projection booth. Brooks would work for Carmike off and on for 26 years. In 1993, he struck out on his own, servicing projectors, sound equipment, and concessions for indie theaters across the state.
Last year, after the Carmike 6 shut down, Brooks, a tall, broad man with a bristling mustache and a traffic-cop look, became intrigued by the empty theater. It sat in a prime location in the old Jackson Heights strip of shops, in the middle of town, on the city’s main drag. It wasn’t in a malla big plus. (“A mall and a cinema share parking, but that’s about it,” Brooks says. “People going to movies don’t feel like shopping afterward, and shoppers don’t like leaving their packages in the car.”) In March he formed a partnership with Murfreesboro businessman Steve McKnight, the late Tomlinson’s son-in-law, and he was suddenly owner of the theater he’d worked in as a kid.
Not that he could move right in. Carmike and Regal have left empty multiplexes littering the landscape from Cool Springs to Hermitage, but that doesn’t mean they want other theaters in them. When Brooks and McKnight took possession of the Carmike 6, they found that the vacating chain had made it as tough as possible for a competitor to move ingoing so far as to cut chunks out of the screen frames, rendering them unusable. Brooks, who left Carmike on good terms and admires the company, doesn’t blame them. “Like any other business, they want to protect their exclusivity,” he explains. “If you were selling exclusive carpet, you wouldn’t want somebody else setting up in your old store with the same product.”
Regardless, Brooks and McKnight opened the theater, now named the Premiere 6, this summer on the lucrative Fourth of July holiday. Only one screen was running the first day, but by the second weekend they had four of the six screens in operation. By this weekend, all six screens should be functioning. The theater opened with low-risk summer fare like Cats & Dogs and Kiss of the Dragon, but Brooks intends to alternate such choices with midnight shows as well as foreign and independent films. First up was the French thriller With a Friend Like Harry, one of the only subtitled foreign films to show in Murfreesboro in the past 20 yearsthe kind of movie patrons once found only in Nashville. Bookings like these, combined with upgraded sound and projection, state-of-the-art rocking seats, and a remodeled lobby and interior, make Brooks think he can fight his former bosses at Carmike to a draw.
But it’ll be tough. The big advantage chains have over the mom-and-pop moviehouse is their ability to commandeer product. To secure the top studio releases, an indie theater has to compete with a chain’s film booker. That means a distributor has the choice of going with the operator of a single screen, or with one guy who can book a movie into hundreds of theaters in an instant. Guess who usually wins.
To get a better shot, an indie theater can lowball its “house nut”the fixed amount of box office that a theater gets to keep to cover its overhead. (A film company must agree to this amount before a theater can show its films.) If the box office comes in below this figure, the distributor splits the take 70-30 with the theater the first week. If the box office comes in above the house nut, everything over it is split 90-10. A studio stands to make more money in a theater with a low house nut. The trade-off, of course, is that the theater makes less money. But some exhibitors figure that a lower percentage of something is better than a higher percentage of nothing.
Other independent theaters, however, have managed to finesse their lack of leverage with major studios. Instead of competing for megaplex product, they’ve carved a niche for themselves through shrewdly packaged revival programming, theme nights, special promotions, and other strategies. The theater’s identity becomes a kind of work-in-progress in partnership with the community. The audience responds with enthusiasm to certain films and events, and the theater shapes its programming to reflect their tastes. The best theatersthe Film Forum in New York, the Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, the Music Box in Chicago, the Castro Theater in San Franciscostrike a balance between catering to the community’s proven tastes and challenging them.
No indie theater has struggled harder in this regard than Nashville’s last historic neighborhood moviehouse, the Belcourt Cinema. Built in 1926, the Belcourt has been an anchor of Hillsboro Village: a former silent-movie/vaudeville theater, an early home of the Grand Ole Opry, the locus of the now defunct Nashville Community Theater, the city’s arthouse in the 1960s. When Carmike gave up the two-screen theater in 1997, a group led by developer Charles Hawkins purchased it on behalf of the Watkins Institute School of Art and Design, intending it as a source of revenue for the school. Instead, the theater proved a tremendous financial drain, losing as much as $20,000 a month at its lowest ebb. The Watkins group shuttered the Belcourt in 1999.
At that point, the grass-roots group Belcourt YES! banded together to save the ailing theater. Led by Nashville native Julia Sutherland, the loose-knit coalition included Belmont/Hillsboro merchants and residents, community leaders, musicians, and patrons of the theater before it closed. By January 2000, the group had raised enough money to secure a 10-year lease on the building, with an option to buy. Signs were hopeful when the theater reopened as a multi-use facility in spring 2000, offering live music, stage productions, and film. Early concerts by Yo La Tengo, Ron Sexsmith, and Warren Zevon drew full houses. The Mockingbird Public Theatre moved its home base there (although it has since left). When the theater began showing movies again in June 2000, its grand-opening weekend drew more than 1,100 people.
As last year ended, however, so did most of the early momentum. The Belcourt’s midnight screenings of The Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon and the Phish documentary Bittersweet Hotel were phenomenally popular, but the theater never followed up on the idea: The booking of midnight movies became so erratic that the audience dissipated. Outside bookers found it hard to schedule movies around the Belcourt’s mix of live theater and music. The fledgling organization also had to deal with distributors clamoring for cash.
Worst of all, the theater has found it all but impossible to compete for plum arthouse titles with Regal’s Green Hills Commons 16 megaplex down the road. Belcourt patrons have complained that the theater rarely shows “happy” or “popular” movies. The sad truth is that the theater has gone after most of these titles, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Memento to the recent The Taste of Others, and in every case Regal had placed a hold on the films. The chain sometimes dumps three art movies a week into Green Hills, with no advance word and little promotion. But in at least one case, this has proven to be a boon for the Belcourt. The smaller theater picked up the reality-show satire Series 7: The Contenders shortly after it played a poorly attended weeklong run at Regaland it made more money at the Belcourt.
But the Crouching Tigers and Mementos have put local audiences in the habit of going to Green Hills. While a few recent films have done well, it gets harder to find people in the habit of going to the Belcourt. Last winter’s run of The Sorrow and the Pity drew crowds, even against a Titans playoff game, and I Am Cuba last month was a surprise favorite. But a few weeks ago, the theater showed a weekend matinee of Bonnie and Clyde, typically a popular revival-house film. It drew seven people. On weeknights the theater is largely empty.
Julia Sutherland, who serves as the Belcourt’s executive director, says there’s a lot she would do differently if she were starting the theater today, from securing contracts to improving communication among the theater’s many staffers and volunteers. “Everyone has such a personal stake in making this work, and everyone has a different idea of how to get from point A to point B,” she said in an interview this past June, as the new Belcourt was celebrating its first year. “So it’s not just money lost when something messes up; it’s hurt feelings.”
There are hopeful signs, though, that the Belcourt can avoid closing again. Grants and day rentals are reducing the financial pressure, and concert bookings (like this weekend’s sold-out Gillian Welch show) are more frequent. The theater is searching for a film booker who represents enough clients to have some clout with distributors. For the first time, the Belcourt is setting in place a coherent scheduling strategy, so audiences will have an idea of what kind of movie will be playing every day of the weekincluding weekend matinees of classics and grouped packages of movies like the ongoing tribute to indie distributor Milestone Films. The theater is getting the word out about these films with advance newsletters and a weekly e-mailing that includes trivia quizzes and ticket giveaways.
“There is no limit to the possibilities for this place,” Sutherland says. “It could be anything Nashville wants it to be.”
A model for the kind of theater the Belcourt could be is the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Run by Tim and Karrie League, who just opened their second location, the Alamo is a combination film society, cybergeek haven, beer hall, and hangout. The programming includes weekend children’s screenings, indie esoterica, midnight cult movies. Specialty nights offer spaghetti dinners with spaghetti Westerns. Annual events tend to sell out long in advance, whether the theater is showing a tongue-in-cheek diet of cannibal movies or Quentin Tarantino is hosting gems from his private exploitation stash.
Even though Tim League says he and his wife got into the theater business without much forethoughtthey left behind careers in biotech and engineeringevery aspect of the theater bespeaks a love of movies and a sense of showmanship. “It really boils down to hard work and creativity; create a niche that isn’t being filled by corporate theaters, and do it well,” League says. “I think it could work anywhere with a young, hip population.”
The Alamo is indeed a great model for a struggling indie like the Belcourt, but not one that should be followed to the letter. The value of America’s remaining independent movie theaters is their individualitytheir unique architecture, their quirks of programming and personality, their place in community history. “You can’t just keep the Belcourt open for the purpose of keeping it,” Julia Sutherland says. “It has to serve a purpose. It has to connect with people and fill a need in their lives. But if you let the arts go away, the soul of a society dies. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t want to see this work.”
It’s midnight in Murfreesboro in muggy late July, and Broad Street is bare. Bill Brooks is facing another 18-hour day at the Premiere 6. He and Steve McKnight have been working around the clock with manager Troy McKnight (Steve’s son) on the theater’s six auditoriums, of which only four are ready to show movies. It has taken many dusk-to-dawn shifts, and they are drinking sodas from the concession stand, gearing up for another all-nighter that they hope will bring the number of functioning screens up to five. As they’re sitting in the back office, Tim Sadler walks in. Sadler works now for the Carmike Wynnsong, the competition across town. But he and Brooks have a history with the theater that goes back to childhood.
The night the Martin Theater opened in 1967, when 13-year-old Brooks was in the projection booth, Sadler’s mother was the cashier. Sadler started working there himself in 1973, and he stayed until the theater closed last year. On closing night, he invited friends over, played a Henry Mancini album, and left when the memories were too much to bear. Between him and Brooks, they have about 50 years tied up in the place.
Both speak with reverence of the late Joe T., Joseph Tomlinson, a man who would arrange to have the Murfreesboro police give a goat a parking ticket as a publicity stunt, if it meant he could get a photo placed in the daily newspaper. From Tomlinson, Brooks says, he learned the value of community involvement. Of handing out passes liberally, to get people accustomed to coming to the theater. Of knowing all the family-owned businesses in town. It was a whole different way of doing business then. It hasn’t entirely disappeared. The chains come, get swallowed by bigger chains, and the chains go. The little guy hangs in there.
“The locally owned businesses, they came and offered us help,” Brooks says. “That’s the way it works in the entertainment business too. It’s like a little club. I’ve gotten flowers from all these other independents. We’re all trying to help each other out.”
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