ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Little Theatre —

I loved the little theatre.

I don’t quite know when I first heard about it, but likely the name rattled around in my reading the free newspapers while I was in college. That’s how it often works: you see something playing there in an article next to the stuff about politics and bands, and then eventually a film name or genre would get your attention and you’d figure out where the heck the place was and if you could get there easily, since you were a college student.

I’m sure what got me to go was something involving animation or hong-kong action movies; after all, I was 19.

What struck me then about the little theatre was the location, nestled inside a city, the entrance off to the side down some stairs past a poster, almost as if you kind of had to know beforehand where it was. A modern multiplex has no problem getting your attention, since it’s often a big fucking box in a 20-acre blast radius of asphalt near a highway. Or it’s a glowing massive box along a street in a city with a sign letting you know that that film you hated just got a sequel. But the little theatre was cozy, almost demure about itself; no big lights, no massive sign, just you having to know. So when you went, as I went that first time, you felt like you’d discovered it and snuck in accordingly.

There were three theatres within 1500 feet of each other, but the other two were chains and the little theatre was “independent”. I had no idea what that meant other than they were showing some really neat, weird stuff. They printed their schedule on a crazy piece of paper going months into the future, and showing themes, “restored” and “new print” films that I’d never heard of, and a whole bunch of anime and action pictures.

As according with the nestled side entrance, the little theatre’s interior was also strange. The lobby wasn’t even a lobby; at best it was an ill-conceived room with a staircase and a snack bar; you couldn’t fit more than 10 people in that space and so you’d end up with lines going out the door or everyone shoved in there if it was cold. After going up the stiars, you’d end up in the main theatre, which was even more odd. It was a stage, in every way, the kind of barn-roof-like showhouse vaudeville most certainly must have thrived in, with a movie screen set back from the edge of the stage. There was even a balcony, although it was kind of odd up there and not many seats, like an afterthought desperate to sneak in another few people. It was funky, it was weird, and it played off-the-wall stuff. I was hooked and in love, and we had our little relationship.

I didn’t know who ran it and I honestly didn’t care. All I knew was that they would show several movies a day, often just for that day. Sometimes they were in theme to each other and sometimes not. You could buy a ticket for one show and sit around and see the next show. Without fail, I did. If it wasn’t a popular one, I could sit in the front row, the absolute front, rest my feet against the stage, and the screen would still be 20 feet back from me. It was, like I said, totally weird and I got a real habit for sitting up towards the front, which I still do and which drives my friends nuts. But it came from the little theatre, it’s little screen and my perfect position when I sat down and watched the movies.

And the movies I saw! Among the films I saw for the first time, on the little theatre’s screen, were Delicatessen, Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, The Hunger, Casablanca, She’s Gotta Have It, The City of Lost Children, What Time Is It There?, Seven Samurai, and dozens and dozens and dozens of anime, hong-kong action, and arty films.

So many times, I’d go to see a film, look around, and see old friends who I hadn’t seen much of in previous months. My city sucks for late night hanging out but at least we’d be able to say some kind words before and after and maybe spur ourselves into an event or dinner soon afterwards. It actually functioned as a meeting place.

I had a rotating group of friends (rotations measured in years) who would come with me or meet me at the little theatre and go there for anime night, or kung-fu night, or whatever. Sometimes it’d be a tough sell, as I explained that a movie had taken years to make or it would have puppet sex or it would have as it’s strongest feature that nobody in the film spoke a word. Sometimes people would bite, or sometimes it would be just me and the little theatre and the magic inside.

After I graduated, and as I went into my 30s, I stopped going to the llittle theatre as much, mostly because I had a demanding job, lived farther away from it, and generally didn’t check the schedule until it was too late to make it. I’d still get the phone calls from friends about something coming up and I’d make it, but I also had cable in my house (I hadn’t had it between the ages of 18 and 26) and I caught up on the different TV shows and rented movies and generally enjoyed myself that way. The little theatre, with its quirky bits and odd one-day-only shows sometimes got my attention and sometimes did not. I certainly didn’t avoid it, and didn’t feel weird coming to go in, but it was like going to any place you’d been at a lot and now not so much; you felt fine being there.. it just wasn’t a vital daily need or anything like that.

There was another movie house that I went to that was the closest to “competition” as far as I was concerned: the very grand old theater. The very grand old theatre had everything in spades: a lobby that represented a real lobby (although they had sold off part of it to another business, so it was still a little oddly shaped) and a main showing area that was absolutely goddamn breathtaking. I went to the grand old theater many times, although nowhere near as much as the little theatre. The grand old theatre, though, is where I saw a lot of other stuff for the first time: Laurence of Arabia in 70mm, Donnie Darko, Metropolis (with live music!), and so on. “Big ticket” stuff, in other words. The seats were nicer and the screen was set up so in fact I was happier in the 15th row than the first. The grand old theatre also did week runs (and midnight movies) instead of 2-a-day or 1-a-day, so I wouldn’t bump into buddies all that often but I was basically always guaranteed a seat.

So I was a movie-goer in the classic sense, including going to the big box theatres, but not all that often. I had a lot more interest in these time-tested classics than particularly heading down to the local multiplex and hoping beyond hope I wasn’t going to get hose-slapped with a piece of garbage dressed up in a pretty bow. I ended up going to a lot of films based on the director, and still do. Not a great reason, but generally a help.

But puppies become dogs and kittens become cats, and I bought a house and moved a little ways out of town and my internet connection got better and my home got a lot nicer. Where before I had no cable and an OK TV, now I had a big-screen and more DVDs than I could ever want and the ability to download all sorts of cool films whenever the mood struck me. The little theatre and the grand old theatre could get me, but it had to be something pretty darn special; I wasn’t just going to blow an evening out hoping the film wouldn’t be too painful to watch.

But again, the love affair was still there; I registered a domain and pointed it to the little theatre because their domain name absolutely blew and nobody would find it. My site had their logo and pointer to their site, and I watched college student after college student coming from a college domain click in, and click out. I figure it was something like 200-400 a month, looking for schedules and then going on. I was happy; even if I wasn’t always able to go, I helped a lot of people get to go anyway, helping the little theatre.

Sometime in here, I struck up a conversation with the current people running the little theatre. Just a little bit in e-mail; they had a list and they would solicit suggestions and I’d just go off on flowery tangental sermons about how great they were and how they could get even better and so on. I remember, quite clearly, asking some behind the scenes stuff, like if they owned their theatre, how they chose movies, what events they might have there in the future.

I also remember, quite clearly, being told that while they didn’t own the building, they had a really nice landlord with a really good deal and so there was no problem. I said I thought there was a minor problem with that, having seen too many cases of landlords selling out “landmark” businesses out from under themselves, ending the run. But the rest of the answers were helpful and bright, and I was happy to know “my” theatre was in understanding, caring hands.

So one day the letter came.

The letter explained that in fact the little theatre was not just under the gun, but it’d taken quite a few bullets and was now limping to the community’s doorstep for help. It turned out, you see, that the landlord was such a great landlord because he would let payments slip. The little theatre owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Where I heard sunshine and light before, I now heard that it was in danger of closing. Poof. Almost to be gone and removed forever.

The theatre asked for everyone to please send in money. Any amount, any bit, to help keep it alive. They announced fundraising drives, and declared two massive milestones to be reached: a lot of money in a short period of time and a sort-of-lot of money to be reached within a year. If not, they warned, they would close their doors forever.

I felt bad for the little theatre but it was also like finding out an elderly friend had hip trouble: well, duh. The place they were at wasn’t the most accessible, the prices they charged were basically equivalent to first-run theatres, and to be honest, the lineups often didn’t appeal to me; they were often just the first-run “independent” movies, which by the last few years had basically degenerated to the movies that were made by the tiny studios run by the big studios. Hooray. When they pulled out a great one, it was great, but great wasn’t happening as much anymore.

But, I also figured, maybe I was just getting old and cynical. I idly checked up on the listing for the little theatre’s property. I saw that they had a landlord who owned a number of properties, and had for many years; a real old-school one. And the story, as I could piece together, was quite clear: they just didn’t always pay their bills, and finally the landlord wanted some friggin’ bucks.

My research didn’t stop there; I started looking into who was running the place, which I had never cared about, and also didn’t like what I saw. Not so much “film” people as chummy organizer types with recent college degrees and shared board seats on a variety of local “groups” which included an incestual selection of insiders across a number of arts-related themes. Small-town punkery in a city that thinks it’s world class. I had dimly theorized the motor under the hatch wasn’t all that pretty but here I now knew it was.

I’m actually being nice here; I started to write on some weblog comment areas about my concerns with the little theatre and its setups, and was contacted by the theatre’s management, asking me to please take what I was saying down, that it could potentially jinx a number of investments that were coming along. See, as it was explained to me, there were some real big money people who were willing to help the poor sickly little theatre, but they were waiting on all the plebes on the ground to donate their $10-$100 coinage to show there was even any interest in the endeavor. Once they saw this and a groundswell of love and caring for the little theatre, the big guns would come in and save the day. I found this distasteful and ugly, but I’d asked for it getting involved in the first place. I promised I would not use their name again. (And I haven’t, and you might notice I haven’t once even in this entry).

So I was on the fence about the little theatre. I knew that the time for movie houses being the center of all things was well closed, and that competition from other forms of entertainment that, seriously, are just as good and satisfying was eating a lot of the theatre’s lunch. There are a number of unique and forward-thinking things that a theatre can do. After all, it’s a box, and since time immemorial guys with boxes on streets and sidewalks have to figure out how to get people to pay to get into the box. Flashier outsides, cascades of advertisements, eye-catching events and heart-exciting appearances. It’s a business. Businesses have to do what they can do, or they get smeared.

I fell off the fence, late last year, when I read an article that had joined a dozen other articles about saving the theatre. The history! The special place it was! The need to survive to keep this jewel shiny. Typical stuff. But the real crux was the reasoning given by the manager for the dire situation the little theatre was in.

He blamed the reduction in foot traffic, the encroach of home entertainment, the ever-rising costs to do business, the razor-thin profit world of the independent theatre. All well and good, although of course I asked myself what giving them even more money would achieve, if they had no clear plan to make a sizeable profit to float the boat itself.

But then I read down further, and my love affair died.

He blamed 9/11.

Yes, that’s right, because two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in 2001, the little theatre was limping along near death in 2005 and might close in 2006. Audiences were depressed or started shying away from movie theatres, it was explained, and it was a heavy load that had caused a downturn in attendance.

Bull, Fucking. Shit.

People enjoy entertainment more when they’re feeling lost and lonely. They curl up and throw themselves into the great entertainment the creative people of the world present, whether it’s a book, a movie or a concert. The events might have more deep personal meanings, and songs about being torn apart or losing a loved one might have sudden echoes of new interpretations, but to imply that 9/11 was a mitigating and ongoing factor in the little theatre’s troubles, especially when the other independent theatres were doing just fine, thank you was the lowest of the low, the cornered rat squeaking out one last plea.

I washed my hands completely. I haven’t set foot back in the little theatre since.

The grand old theatre gets my cash, although again I don’t often go there, just like I don’t go out like I once did. I work with computers and when I’m not working with computers I’m travelling the world making my own movies. I learned how to float my own boat years ago; I don’t depend on handouts and assuming my debtors will never actually collect because I’m just that fucking cool and arty. The phrase is “head in the clouds but feet on the ground”. Take away the ground part, and you’re in free-fall.

I wish the little theatre well, and I might even attend a movie or two in the future there, assuming it’s truly a unique offering being made that is worth the effort to get out there and spend the money. But that goes for buying any product, really. Give me something worth coming to you for and I won’t care how dumb you’ve acted in the past with your business decisions. Movie houses are not temples. They’re not charities, they’re not altars requiring me to tithe my salary to to ensure a big white rectange stays on a wall in the building. They’re a business. A business with 100 years behind the industry, but still, a business. Adapt or die. Gas stations don’t wistfully recall the time they had electromechanical dials and the customers had to go to the staff to pay. They adapted, they became more efficient, they concentrated on having convenience stores attached to the gas station and ensuring that there was a reason to stick around and spend even more money. I’ve eaten at a lot of gas stations in the past decade.

Harsh? Maybe. Unnecessary, a kick while they’re down? Maybe. But they put themselves there. Aiming a gun at your own head and demanding money isn’t a hostage situation. It’s delayed suicide.

Goodbye, little theatre. I loved you.

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  1. Shii says:

    oh cambridge.

  2. Flack says:

    God damn Osama Bin Laden.

    Seriously though, I can think of at least a dozen reasons why theaters are dying (and no, 9/11 doesn’t make the list).

    Out of Delicatessen, Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, The Hunger, Casablanca, She’s Gotta Have It, The City of Lost Children, What Time Is It There? and Seven Samurai, only She’s Gotta Have It isn’t available through Netflix. I can watch all those this month for less than it would take my wife to go to the theater (and that’s if we don’t buy any refreshments), and I won’t have to worry about some kid kicking the back or my chair or the inevitable cell phone going off during the film.

    I think it’s like anything else. At first you support theaters because you like them. Then it gets to a point where you support theaters because you either like what they used to be, or like what they stand for. Eventually you just get to a point where you begin to realize why they’re failing, and nothing you can do short of revolutionalizing the entire industry will help.

    I would totally support a theater that hired a guy who punched people in the face for talking during a movie.

  3. Lazlo says:

    My personal “little theatre” died quite a while back, probably fifteen years ago, and at the time there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. First remodel turned it into a live venue, second remodel turned it into a chicken-bowl joint. I liked the chicken bowls but generally bought them somewhere else, because there was just a bad vibe around the whole thing.

    If I had known then what big-screen TV and Netflix would do for catalog movies, I wouldn’t have wept for my little theatre, I would have set the fucking place on fire and pissed on the ashes. What’s better for old movies, a couple hundred rep houses scattered across the country, or a hundred million homes with DVD players? I first saw Mad Max at that little theatre, a shitty print of the laughably-revoiced US cut, and was glad to have it. And yet…would I have been able to see it restored, remastered and FINALLY un-dubbed twenty years later if the only place that could show it was that smelly little hole-in-the-wall theatre and its smelly brethren? Nope.

  4. Jason Scott says:

    I should hasten to add that I don’t actually avoid movie theatres altogether, and I don’t find them all so bad. I don’t go out of my way to see a lot of stuff on opening night, but I did in fact rush out to see Snakes on a Plane, just to enjoy the group involvement. But that’s different than enjoying a movie on its own terms.

    I actually went to Trilogy Tuesday, also, where I saw all three Lord of the Rings movies in one day, across 11 hours, with the extended version of the first two. That was nice and hardcore and well worth it.

    Flack, there are specialty showings at some theatres out there, like 18+ shows or deluxe accomodation shows (plush seats, you can bring meals before the show, etc.), but they’re also few and far between.

    For my own bit, there is a box-in-blast-radius theatre called the Showcase Cinema Woburn a few miles from my house, which is one of the rare cinemas in Boston that actually have late showings. Most business in Boston fear the anger of the Moon Goddess and flee into darkness away from Her Unholy Glow, but this place has post 11pm showings. So, for example, I went out and saw Jet Li’s Fearless at a 12:35am showing. I saw “Crank” the same way. Often, I’m the only one in the theatre. That’s worth $9 to me.

    I stopped by the little theatre tonight to pick up a schedule. To my horror, the Cybercafe attached to it closed. I felt pretty sad about that, even if I’ve never needed one. It’s the point of the thing. But maybe nobody needs them anymore either.

  5. Jason Scott says:

    Stopped by the little theater to see a movie recently. Friday night. Premiere of Thai action flick (the bread and butter in the old days), 11pm. 13 people in the theater.