Here's the setup: In movieland, box office receipts are weak nationally, ticket prices are soaring, Summer 2005 was a catastrophe and that sonuvabitch Steven Soderberg is trying to release his films simultaneously to screens, cable and DVD. Alarmists are already forecasting the end of the theater as we know it. Here's the payoff: The roof of north Spokane's new 14-screen cineplex, Village Centre Cinemas, absolutely towers over its strip mall environment, taking on the shape of a perfect pyramid. Remember your world history? The pyramids in Egypt were tombs. With the new theater just a mile from the abandoned husk of what used to be Newport Cinemas, the irony almost doubles you over.
But at the grand opening party last Wednesday, no one was laughing.
That's not true. Everyone was laughing, just not at the fact that the Pullman-based Village Centre folks had tongue-in-cheekily housed their supposedly dying business model in a giant replica mausoleum. They (I, we) were laughing because there was free beer and mob rule.
The thing was an invite-only affair absolutely brimming over with contractors, various good old boys, lots of anonymous middle management and County Commissioner Phil Harris running around like Yosemite Sam, rhetorical six-guns blazing, popping off about how a 14-screen cinema is proof-gat-damned-positive that north Spokane County (with its old-growth split levels and scorched-earth development policies) is a cultured and refined place. Movies were back on the northside, and everybody on the Starbucks/Wal-Mart/Home Depot end of the Division Street Y was here to celebrate.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, that little shindig wasn't a proper litmus test for community hype. This was a room -- a cavernous, square, almost completely unadorned lobby -- full of investors, investors' assistants, investors' families, business partners, middlemen, sales people, golf buddies, random cronies and guys-behind-guys. As far as I could tell, there was no one here who wasn't connected to planning, building or financing of the theater on some level. Residents of the various neighborhood developments that skirt highways 395 and 2, those who will be responsible for keeping the theater afloat, seemed mostly oblivious to its existence. (My parents, who live literally four blocks away, gave me nothing but blank stares and confused blinking when I told them about the place.) Moreover, it didn't seem like the theater's management was actively trying to get the word out: I was seemingly the only reporter there, and I'd gotten my ticket from the ad rep who handles the Village Centre's advertising, not from their publicity people. So if no one knew about the place, how well could the theater's opening weekend possibly fare?
"Not quite as well as we'd have liked," comes the answer from general manager Sergio Contreras. He's quick to attribute this equally to natural growing pains and abnormal weather. A big, late fall cold snap hampered the early days of construction, which began in November; in June, work ground to a halt on the parking lot due to the heavy rains. They'd originally planned to open earlier this year with only eight functional screens, operating at limited capacity while they finished the place. That, Contreras says, would have generated considerable word-of-mouth buzz by the time the other six screens were complete. People would have at least known it existed. But as it was, says Contreras, "We just decided to wait until everything was done and open up all at once, on August 4."
The learning curve on a new theater is steep, says Contreras. This seems to be true, at least from a scheduling standpoint. At around 6 pm Monday, with three films ready to begin, the gaping maw of a lobby is empty except for me and the five high schoolers waiting to fight over the privilege of buttering my popcorn. I hate to disappoint them. It's easy to see why they'd expect a rush of people to the theater at 6 pm, an hour after most people get off work, but it's also clear that those expectations have proven wrong in this case. As Contreras surveys the vast expanse of empty lobby -- his young workforce milling about, laughing, flirting and generally oozing hormones -- I can almost see him revising the work schedule in his head.
That's tough, but the learning curve is probably hardest for Drew Devlin, Village Centre's film buyer, who, as of now, is flying blind. "We want to try [bringing a variety of] different things," he says, "but really, it's the people that come to the theater who decide what plays here."
A huge fan of art films, Devlin would love to bring to Village Centre the kinds of indie flicks AMC gets, but he says, "If they don't do business, you have to bring in the ones that people want to see." The only such film at Village Centre for last weekend's opening, A Scanner Darkly, played to empty theaters Saturday night and did so poorly overall that Devlin elected not to keep it a second week. That's discouraging, because the film had already been successful downtown. AMC's Angela Dongilli says A Scanner Darkly's numbers at her theater increased steadily throughout the weekend, which has been enough to justify keeping the film for at least three weeks.
Whether its success at AMC and its failure out north signals a general northside aversion to indie flicks, says Devlin -- or if Darkly was just a one-time flop -- won't be clear for about a year. The theater first needs to go through the whole cycle and see what kinds of films the people in the area tend to see at different times of the year.
Though it'd certainly be easy to dismiss Darkly's failure at Village Centre as rednecks and suburbanites not appreciating art house films the way that AMC's more urbane downtown and South Hill patrons do, indie flicks aren't exactly a slam dunk at the RiverPark Square 20-plex, either. Wordplay (a documentary about crossword puzzle culture seen through the life of NY Times crossword editor Will Shorts) left AMC last Thursday after a run of only a week, and, according to Dongilli, they're losing Edward Burns's new film, The Groomsmen, this Thursday as well, again after only a week. There's nothing cut-and-dried about what films succeed where, then, and no way to predict, even among fairly well understood movie-going groups, which specific films will pique interest and which won't.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o it's a crap shoot in many ways, and all that careful planning means nothing if people don't show up. Village Centre is the latest in a string of theaters, including North Division, Lyons Ave. and Newport (all now closed), to try to work the market north of Wellesley Ave. How will Village Centre survive where those others didn't?
The answer I expected was something along the lines of the small, local, community-oriented company having different priorities and expectations than a giant corporate oligopoly like Regal or AMC. That's part of the equation, says Contreras, but the more salient -- and surprising -- fact is that, by Village Centre's standards, Newport Cinemas wasn't struggling at all when it was shut down in 2004. Quite the opposite: Contreras said the theater's numbers were still quite good. "People loved going there," he says, and he believes that when Regal decided to close it to focus their attention on the Northtown location, "anybody who lived north of the [Division Street] Y felt like they were being neglected."
Contreras says he's confident about the general makeup of the north Spokane community. Residents in the area tend to be well off with a good amount of disposable income, money Contreras doesn't see people taking all the way to Northtown unless they're also there to shop.
"Movie-going for people in north Spokane became a commute rather than an event once Newport closed," he says. He's banking that proximity will be enough for people in north Spokane, Deer Park, Chattaroy and even Pend Oreille County to start seeing film as an event again.