What was the best moment you missed at the Watkins Belcourt in the past three months? Hard to say. Maybe it was an uncharacteristically large audience of 50 people roaring at the Marx Brothers’ classic mirror routine in Duck Soup. Maybe it was a somewhat smaller crowd of 11 people sitting in rapt silence at the climax of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Or maybe, just maybe, you caught the glorious close-up of Giuletta Masina’s face, radiant with renewed hope, that ends Fellini’s transcendent Nights of Cabiria. That was at a Saturday afternoon screening that sold five tickets. I went alone, and bought two of them.

But if you didn’t go to the Watkins Belcourt in the past three months, you’ve probably missed your chance. On Jan. 28, one week from today, Nashville’s only art-movie theater will close its doors for good.

For Nashville to lose its sole arthouse is sad enough. Over the past few years, the Belcourt has brought movies to town that would never have come here otherwise, giving local audiences a chance to see the same films that regularly play larger cities. Many of these were movies too controversial or obscure for the local megaplexes. They were also true independents, released by scrappy small distributors who had to elbow their way into the marketplace.

But the Belcourt’s imminent loss is troubling for more reasons than just movies. For the better part of the century, the theater has been the anchor of Hillsboro Village. Built in 1925, it was the former home of both the Grand Ole Opry and the Children’s Theatre of Nashville. As the only neighborhood theater remaining in Nashville, its loss would remove a vital chunk of the Village’s character at a key transitional period in its development.

There’s more, and worse. If the Belcourt ends up demolished—a likely possibility—it will join the beautiful old Tennessee Theatre, the Inglewood, the Belle Meade, and all the other historic movie palaces that we allowed to fall or be closed. Each theater was irreplaceable, a measure of our civic history and aspirations. More importantly, it was Nashville’s alone—not a chain, not a mass-produced structure, but a singular entity that set us apart from every other city on the make. Lose the Belcourt, and we lose one more irretrievable piece of our identity.

Other cities—some larger, some much smaller than Nashville—have managed to save their historic theaters, often through nonprofit organizations and civic fund-raising campaigns. Such efforts have required an outpouring of volunteer support. They have even proved successful, both as businesses and as civic attractions. Yet the Belcourt has already been saved once, and public support proved so weak that the theater is again in dire straits. No one argues the Belcourt is worth saving. Going to the trouble to save it is another matter.

By all rights, the city’s one locally-owned theater should be succeeding. Just five years ago, the Belcourt was literally falling apart, but it drew regular crowds of loyal patrons. Ironically, the theater’s now in better shape than it has been in the past decade, and its seats are largely empty. If the theater had been showing awful movies—such as its disastrous run of Species II one week when the product well ran dry—its losses might be understandable.

But it wasn’t. What made the Belcourt exciting, like the Darkhorse Theater in its early-’90s glory days, was the possibility of seeing something different—something different and good. First-run American indies such as Buffalo ’66 and Unmade Beds alternated with an incredible series of reissues ranging from the re-edited version of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil to Martin Scorsese’s career-making early film Mean Streets. Audiences could see some of Hollywood’s greatest films the way they were meant to be shown, on the big screen: Casablanca, The Lady Eve, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Blade Runner.

This last point is not minor. We’re so used to seeing movies mangled on television—censored, chopped to fit the small screen, speeded up or slowed down to accommodate commercial breaks—that we sometimes assume that’s how the movies were made. The same goes for rented videos, which adhere to the stunted pan-and-scan format. In the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the cinema’s birth, the Belcourt’s revival programming made these films alive and whole again for a new audience. We’re not talking egghead esoterica here: we’re talking James Bond movies, John Wayne movies.

Which makes it that much harder to figure out why people stopped coming. As late as 1991, the Belcourt was a run-down Carmike Cinemas theater showing first-run mainstream movies. Inside the city, with only two screens, it did a fraction of the business Carmike’s outlying mall ’plexes did. Faced with sagging attendance, Carmike started stocking the Belcourt with the left-of-center indie titles that used to play Fountain Square. Within a year, the Belcourt was doing brisk business with films such as Reservoir Dogs and Howards End.

In the fall of 1996, the theater was bought from under Carmike by a group of investors led by developer Charles Hawkins. In a remarkable philanthropic gesture, Hawkins and other investors who served on the board of the downtown Watkins Institute agreed to give Watkins a 25-percent stake in any profits from the theater’s ownership. In that spirit, the theater was renamed the Watkins Belcourt, and it quickly reopened that October. It started trying to show the same arthouse hits that had kept the theater afloat under Carmike.

The new Belcourt had problems, sure. For starters, it reopened without making overhauls in sound and projection that Carmike had put off for years, causing grumbles immediately. Without Carmike’s clout, the theater also found itself suddenly forced to share movies with its competitors. Thus its market share for films such as The Wings of the Dove was slashed—especially when Regal opened its enormous Hollywood 27 complex at 100 Oaks last January. In desperation, the Belcourt tried to show “commendable mainstream” titles such as Out of Sight and Good Will Hunting—an ill-fated experiment that led to empty houses throughout the first two quarters of 1997.

By last summer, however, the Belcourt had fixed its programming by converting to a two-screen calendar house. One screen showed current releases; the other showed classics and recent reissues. The theater started bringing in movies that customers requested, such as Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (Hana-Bi) and Nights of Cabiria. It also installed a new sound system and did frequent maintenance on its near-decrepit projectors. In fact, the Belcourt’s new management did more to address customer concerns in six months than Carmike had in the previous six years.

At several points during the year, the Belcourt seemed to have turned the corner with its ambitious programming, which was being booked by Watkins Film School cofounder David Hinton and New York-based booking agent Jeffrey Jacobs. An unexpected success was Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, a superb Iranian film that drew patrons from as far away as Alabama. There was the triumph of the revitalized Nashville Independent Film Festival, which after its move to the Belcourt increased its attendance by more than 90 percent. Fireworks, Touch of Evil, Mean Streets, and retrospectives of Hitchcock and David Lean all drew crowds. So did Halloween screenings of Evil Dead 2, Suspiria, and Dead-Alive, the theater’s best-promoted venture.

For every week of success, though, there were three of crushing disappointments: A week of John Cassavetes films will never be forgotten by the seven people who took a chance on them. Two weeks of Preston Sturges’ comedies—some of the funniest films ever made in this country—played mostly to single-digit audiences.

I might as well share the moment that broke my heart: The Belcourt was showing an amazing double bill of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and François Truffaut’s Day for Night—two movies available on TV and video only in the most washed-out, dispiriting condition. I was seeing a movie on the other screen, but I snuck for a moment into Day for Night, which I’d seen earlier. On screen was the scene in which Truffaut, playing a movie director, dreams that he is a child again, swiping stills of Citizen Kane from the lobby of a neighborhood movie theater. Truffaut the director deepened my love of movies; Truffaut the critic made me want to write. I wondered how many other people in the auditorium were sharing this impossibly perfect moment. The room held 400. I counted eight. I bought two more tickets, just to make it 10.

How to explain such dismal turnouts? The Belcourt’s lack of focus behind the scenes didn’t help. Despite the noblest of intentions, the number of owners and competing interests made it impossible for any one vision to take hold—hence the six months of indecision before last summer. As the chief backer, Charles Hawkins was forced to act as liaison between the theater and his understandably uneasy partners.

That Hawkins and his fellow investors, who include Tuned-In Broadcasting president Lester Turner and members of the Massey family, held on as long as they did is an act of commendable civic charity—especially as their monthly losses ran into the tens of thousands. (Hawkins, a warm, unfailingly polite gentleman who speaks of the theater with genuine feeling, even reportedly financed equipment upgrades out of his own pocket.) Yet the absence of a single unifying figure, a showman/greeter/huckster who was synonymous with the theater (like the Belle Meade’s legendary E.J. Jordan), kept the Belcourt from developing much personality—or visibility.

If another group purchases the Belcourt, it could learn from these and other mistakes, including the theater’s uncertain marketing. There are countless inexpensive marketing ploys the Belcourt never tried—theme nights, cross-promotions, co-sponsorships with foreign-language organizations. Until recently, the Belcourt never even reached out to the many large ethnic communities here starved for films from their homelands. Julia Ann Hawkins, who handled the theater’s advertising, deserves credit for allowing outside promoters to show Hindi films, which draw as many as 150 people each Sunday and Wednesday. It’s an excellent idea—one that should be copied, should the Belcourt somehow remain an operating theater.

Yet despite all its problems, the theater was never guided by less than the best of intentions. When you see the Belcourt’s employees and investors, tell them thanks for trying, OK? That goes double for Charles Hawkins, who tried so hard to make it work. If the old Varallo’s were still open, I’d say he deserves a king-size three-way.

Even if the Belcourt can be saved, though, why would new owners have any better luck getting Nashvillians off their asses? The theater’s biggest enemy isn’t Regal or Blockbuster; it’s the city’s stupefying complacency where any kind of arts programming is concerned. That isn’t entirely the audience’s fault. As a local critic groused recently, one Nashville theater company’s biggest supporters are always flying to New York to see current dramas the company will never stage—because it says there’s no audience for them.

Yet local audiences don’t receive better because they haven’t been demanding or supporting it. If dull familiarity is what Nashvillians want, they’ll be amply rewarded—either by Patch Adams on three screens at every megaplex, or by the umpteenth production of Smoke on the Mountain at the local playhouse. If these represent the pinnacle of our intellectual curiosity, it’s a sad joke that we’re investing in a $15 million downtown arts center. What will we enshrine there? Paintings of kittens and sunsets?

Even so, it’s unfair to blame the Belcourt’s failure on the vast majority of local moviegoers, who know what they like and choose a movie or two a month accordingly. They pick the Hollywood 27 because it has every big current movie they want to see, and the lines and the flashing tote board create a sense of activity. Plus it’s clean and has state-of-the-art seating and sound. No shame there.

The sad fact is, the group that has let the Belcourt down the most is its target audience. Last March, when the theater was voted the city’s best in the Nashville Scene readers’ poll, it was struggling to meet its utility bills. If only lip service paid the rent. When asked, many of the people now eulogizing the Belcourt admit they’ve been going more frequently to Regal’s Green Hills Commons 16, which took up the Hollywood 27’s slack with so-called mainstream arthouse titles like Elizabeth and Waking Ned Devine. One Belcourt employee recalls a couple telling him how sorry they were about the theater’s closing. All he could notice was the sack of microwaved popcorn they had sneaked in—at a time when the theater needed every dollar of revenue it could get.

That’s the danger of viewing each new addition to the local horizon—be it an arthouse, an arts center, or a pro-sports team—as a civic acquisition: Active participation tends to stop once the purchase has cleared. Yet such things must always be works in progress. I hate to sound like a PBS fund drive, but without ongoing support, these concerns shrivel and die. And when they do, they invariably leave conditions worse than before.

Case in point: Does anyone think Regal will show the Belcourt’s brand of indie and foreign films and reissues? The signs aren’t good, even though the Nashville Independent Film Festival just announced that for this year’s festival in June, it will move to the Green Hills Commons 16. Along with an admittedly generous $10,000 corporate sponsorship, Regal has donated two basement screens and the use of its perpetually desolate downstairs area.

Since December, though, Regal has bumped back dates for a number of films from top-notch smaller distributors like New Yorker and Zeitgeist, including the terrific Japanese comedy-drama The Eel (last year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes) and the controversial Indian erotic drama Fire (which has been delayed so long that it’s now on video). Last week came notices that The Eel and Fire have been postponed indefinitely, without rescheduling. Regal’s reason is a pip: The parent company of the Hollywood 27 and Green Hills 16 is “short on screens.”

Big deal, you say; so we won’t get Modulations. Right—and we won’t get Touch of Evil, or Taste of Cherry, or Cabiria, or the Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary festival. The picture will be even bleaker when Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema scales back its bookings, as is rumored. Suddenly the choices will seem a lot narrower, as they were only a year ago. And without exposure to the full range of cinema, how can Nashville’s own slumbering film industry turn out anything other than mediocrity? It’s no coincidence that Steve Taylor, one of Nashville’s most creative and inquisitive music video directors, just got on VH1 with a Sixpence None the Richer clip inspired by Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. I think I even saw Taylor in the audience a few years ago when the film played at Sarratt.

And if the Belcourt building itself disappears, we’d do well to wonder what will replace it. Consider the Tennessee Theatre, one of the last Art Deco movie palaces in the country. It was demolished 11 years ago, and for what? A high-rise Church Street apartment building so architecturally nondescript and forgettable it constitutes a beige hole in the skyline. Yet the new building’s bland façade is right in keeping with the city’s persistent attempts to replace the old with something shiny and uniform. The loss of each Tennessee Theatre, each Jacksonian, brings us one step closer to erasing our past and losing the qualities that make us unique as a place to visit, or to live. Come to Nashville, the Stepford City.

The Belcourt is hardly the only theater of its kind in jeopardy. Across the country, small independent arthouses are falling by the wayside: the famed Biograph and The Key in Washington, D.C.; the Guild in Albuquerque, N.M.; the Vogue in Louisville, which closed just recently. The reasons cited are numerous, from chain consolidation to the birth of a video generation that has no sentimental attachment to the neighborhood theater.

“Distributors generally do not care about the little theaters that keep them in business,” says Martin McCaffery, director of the Capri Theater in Montgomery, Ala. As even arthouse chains convert to four- and six-screen ’plexes, McCaffery says the days of the single-screen neighborhood theater are disappearing fast. Small-town theaters such as the Lincoln in Fayetteville and the Franklin Cinema in Franklin are the exception, not the rule—which is too bad for diehard movie lovers. “People who didn’t grow up with video,” he observes, “aren’t used to bad sound and picture.”

Yet McCaffery’s own theater is proof that historic indie arthouses can survive—in cities smaller than Nashville. Built in 1941, the Capri was being run by a large regional chain as a soft-core adult cinema until it was shut down in the early ’80s. In 1983, a group of Montgomery residents banded together to save the theater, forming a nonprofit organization to run and restore it. Today, the renovated Capri shows art films such as Pi and Happiness, despite intermittent competition from Carmike’s local multiplexes.

“Their interest [in the kind of movies we show] ebbs and flows,” McCaffery says. “Some independent movie comes out and makes a lot of money, like The Crying Game, and suddenly they decide to do art. They might hurt us for a while, but they just don’t know the movies. And we don’t treat our customers like cattle.”

The Capri is one of several historic theaters across the country that has managed to survive through concerted civic effort. Some have been converted into lavish dinner-and-a-movie attractions. Many are run by nonprofit organizations, which supplement their box-office take with grants, donations, fund-raising events, and memberships. In Champaign-Urbana, Ill., community patrons bought the New Art Cinema and transformed it into a neighborhood arthouse. In Boston, the Coolidge Corner sells memberships that include discounts at area merchants.

In each case, the theater built a bond with its patrons by giving them a stake in its future—organizing volunteer workdays, creating outreach programs for kids and senior citizens, selling seats engraved with customers’ names. A cynic could argue that cities like Montgomery and Champaign-Urbana would be more receptive because they don’t have much else to do. But movies are only a small part of the overall experience these theaters provide.

From a business standpoint, a low number of screens is a drawback—one dud movie can kill business for an entire week, as the Belcourt learned all too well. Yet it’s that very intimacy, that warmth and sense of community—those intangibles we lost when the mall theaters took over—that make these small cinemas as representative of a city’s personality as a quirky coffeehouse or a favorite meat-and-three. And when one fails, that says a lot about a city too.

There is a faint hope for the Belcourt—faint because the current asking price for the facility is $1.85 million. A Nashville native named Julia Sutherland, who recently moved back here from New Mexico, was stirred to action when she learned of the theater’s closing. “It’s sad to have that kind of experience only when I’m out of town,” she says. So she and six partners are attempting to form a nonprofit organization to continue the Belcourt as a theater. She has been joined by a diverse group that includes Vanderbilt and Harpeth Hall instructors, country musicians, and local filmmakers.

Sutherland readily admits she’s only starting to secure backing. But in her talks with other theaters around the country, such as the Capri and New York’s Film Forum, she says she has received nothing but encouragement. “They want it to work,” she says. Some groups have even offered to share information on starting a nonprofit theater. Sutherland hopes to meet with anyone concerned about the theater’s fate at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 24, upstairs at Bongo Java.

Thus far, Sutherland’s is the only plan I’ve heard about that involves keeping the Belcourt intact as an arthouse. It certainly beats the alternatives that have been rumored—an apartment complex, a restaurant, office space, and a parking lot.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen reasons why the Watkins Belcourt should be saved. Because it’s a piece of our history. Because the cutting edge of an art form as democratic as film shouldn’t be the exclusive property of bicoastal snobs. Because it makes Nashville a richer place. Because going to the movies is a relatively cheap thing that can bring you in contact with other people and make your life a little better for two hours—sometimes a lot better.

If the Belcourt is to survive, it’ll take an effort that lasts way beyond any initial meeting or purchase. It’ll mean a month-by-month commitment that extends into the next century and doesn’t stop. It’ll mean taking a chance on some movies you’ve never heard of. It’ll mean Gene Wyatt, a supporter of offbeat films here for more than 30 years, will have to clear Gannett’s dunderheaded wire reviews out of the Tennessean. And if the Belcourt doesn’t survive a second rebirth, if it joins all those other ghosts in the civic boneyard, we should harbor no illusions about who put it there.

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