By Carly Davis - November 20th 2023
After months of production halts and discourse surrounding the film and television industry, all strikes are coming to an end. But the future is still uncertain for small town theaters, who will suffer the consequences of numerous box office delays.
As studios have fewer movies to distribute, independent theaters in areas like southern Wisconsin are taking the hit.
“We started everything. I think the movie studios recognize that, too,” said Matt Sampon, general manager of Towne Cinema in Watertown. “They wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for movie theaters way back when.”
With no big Thanksgiving or Christmas blockbuster, ticket and concession revenue will be down during the theater industry’s busiest and most profitable time of the year.
The Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strike announced an agreement on Saturday, Nov. 11, after four months of picketing, during which guild members could not work on new projects or promote their work.
On Oct. 9, the Writers Guild of America strike reached an agreement to guarantee improved royalty payments and crediting on work, among other line items.
Notably, the strike delayed major releases and called attention to problems within the film and television industry.
Sampon has been running the 110-year-old Towne Cinema in Watertown for 13 years. In that time, the little theater’s undergone some significant changes.
“We’ve got three projectors that we had to buy pretty much all at the same time,” Sampon said.
In 2014, the theater launched a Kickstarter campaign for $70,000 to purchase two digital projectors on top of improvements it was already making to the screens and sound system.
A new digital projector can run a theater anywhere between $40,000 and $70,000. When Towne Cinema had to replace a broken projector last year, it purchased one used for $12,000 from a theater in Minnesota who had purchased it for $90,000.
“Basically, the studios… said that’s going to be it for film. You have to convert to digital or die,” Sampon said.
Now, film screenings are a luxury that movie buffs will cross countries for.
When “Oppenheimer” was shown in IMAX 70mm film at select theaters earlier this year, a difference that features drastically improved resolution and analog color, aficionados traveled by car and plane to catch the film at one of 30 theaters in the world capable of projecting the film prints.
Even without being an exclusively outfitted IMAX theater, the type of movies a theater can show at a time is limited by several factors.
“The movie studios will put out a certain amount of … copies of a movie in an area,” Sampon explained.
A distributor may only be able to put a movie on 3,200 screens across the country, so at first release, they have to be mindful of where the movie goes in order to have the biggest opening week.
“What they do is identify what kind of theater you are. So you live in a small town? Well, you’re probably not going to do the independent stuff. Do you have only three screens? We get typecast in a way,” he said.
“They pretty much look to us for the big, blockbuster-type movies.”
But arthouse theaters in bigger cities, especially if they have more screens, get access to a whole slate of films the Towne Cinema is closed off from.
When Martin Scorcese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” came out, Towne Cinema didn’t stand a chance of getting on the list to screen it.
“Finally, on its third week, we were able to get it because the studios let up on their restrictions,” Sampon said.
The film’s 3.5-hour runtime has been divisive and put off plenty of moviegoers. But long movies for older audiences aren’t that new. What is new, Sampon pointed out, are the increased runtimes of children’s movies.
“In the last five years, everything’s moved up 20 to 30 minutes,” he said. “Now, you don’t find so many kids’ movies that are under an hour and 50 [minutes].”
Long runtimes are just one of the factors affecting ticket sales, which have remained low since the pandemic and as moviegoers became more accustomed to watching movies from home.
“They lose the social aspect of it — not just watching the movie itself, but actually being in a theater with people that are enjoying the same things that you are,” he said.
“I think that has changed the spectrum on how we’re supposed to be operating and what we’re supposed to be happy with, with our numbers.”
The impact has been so great that the benchmark for decent business has had to be lowered.
“Ever since COVID, we’ve kind of had to find … what is acceptable, like what is actually doing OK,” Sampon said.
In a business where 90% of profits come from concessions, getting people in the doors is essential.
“We only make about 30 cents on the dollar for tickets,” Sampon said. “Everything else goes to the studios or our bookers, so everything is all about concessions for us.”
Towne Cinema has made an effort to provide everything a major theater does with some small town flair. For the much-anticipated release of the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie, it worked with local bakery Sweet Talkin’ Treats to create concessions exclusive to the theater.
The business collaboration was a hit, with the treats selling out quickly.
The marked difference between Towne Cinema and larger, more stable AMC theaters goes beyond the quality of concessions, number of screens or price of tickets (the Towne Cinema offers $3 tickets no matter what time the film is shown).
For Sampon, it’s about being a part of Watertown’s community in a way that streaming services or bigger theaters can’t be.
“I think our community notices that. Some of the goodwill goes pretty far. I mean, some people will see us as a small town theater that is really community-oriented. That’s what we like to be,” Sampon said.
“And I think, sometimes, that gives us a bit of a leg up over the bigger theaters.”
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