The Road Seldom Traveled: The Rise of The Community Movie Theater

Things change. I do not like this fact and try in my own way to fight it as much as I can. As much as I complain and bemoan, things evolve and don’t stay the same. If I find things that are at least somewhat constant I hold on to them for dear life. I think many ways we all do this. As much as I don’t like it, the idea of a multiplex theater is going away and going away fast.

I live in a smaller Mid West town which has a more than vibrant community based theater, The Historic Artcraft Theatre. On Saturday night Franklin threw the switch of its celebration of all things Christmas with the coordinated screening of “A CHRISTMAS STORY”. The Artcraft holds almost 6 weeks of screening Christmas classics and more often than not sells out its 623 seat theater for at least 4 or 5 screenings of any classic Christmas movie. The Artcraft does not really change and because of this fact I dearly love this theater. Every morning I drive by her neon blade sign and I know that things are right with the world. If someone were to happen to the Artcraft, the town would riot. Last year I took a look at the numbers the Artcraft did and saw plainly that they indeed led the world in the screening of classic Christmas movies.

Pretty impressive for a small town of 30,000. People drive for hours often to experience this Christmas movie celebration and every year it seems to grow just a bit. In some ways Christmas at the Artcraft is like a cinematic field of dreams, they have built an authentic classic movie experience and folks are coming to it in droves. It is a marvel to see lines before and after the movie and it warms the heart at the same time. I feel that once America re-discovers true movie going and baseball…it will find itself again.

What reflecting on the Artcraft really shows is that there are two very distinctive paths for motion picture exhibition. The first path is the all too familiar multiplex, a screening experience that is dominated by comic book inspired characters and tent pole after tent pole movie. Increasingly this type of theater requires bar and food service in order to sustain itself and is moving away very quickly from the idea of classical motion picture exhibition. It is an experience that is fragile and has a tendency to rise and fall very quickly.

The rise of streaming services drives movie theaters to focus on enhancing the cinema experience, similar to how e-commerce drives physical retail to focus on improving the shopping experience. Hence, cinemas increasingly create an experience that cannot be digitally replicated, just like high-end retailers do. For instance, luxury theaters, with comfortable seats and waiter service, create a full dinner and movie experience. In addition, similar to the music industry, streaming services drive cinemas to focus on live entertainment: film screenings augmented by live performances have achieved significant box office success. These events also fit a certain type of movie, namely movies with little dialogue, similar to how drive-in culture fit the teen-movie. Moreover, we can distinguish between the cinema experience and the lone spectator experience of streaming services that both fit certain content. Indeed, Netflix focuses on informative documentaries for the lone spectator, whereas the cinema is better suited to epic adventures, action-packed thrillers, and comedy. However, since cinema essentially competes for consumers’ attention with all forms of entertainment. Multiplexes by necessity will evolve into Family Entertainment Centers or FEC’s.

By necessity (and in order to insure its physical existence), these movie theaters will soon find themselves moving far away from the idea that they are a facility designed to show movies, they will evolve into experiential entertainment center where movie going will be just one of their offerings. The writing is on the wall as pragmatic men like Ellis Jacob of Cineplex dip their whole corporate foot in the water with technologies like virtual reality, Adopting virtual reality experiences and hosting social events, theaters are seeking to not only add a sense of novelty, but also to transform the traditional movie-going experience from something passive, to something more engaging.

The world’s first virtual reality cinema has opened in Amsterdam, Holland. This theater gives movie-goers a more immersive experience than cinema could or would want to provide. The VR Cinema, which has a new location in Berlin, Germany, uses Samsung Gear VR to further engage the audience, as well as headphones and 360 degree seating. This enables viewers to freely explore the film, but takes away fully the idea communal movie going. The technologically advanced movie theaters show feature films that are specifically created for a virtual reality environment. What concerns me is that while clad in googles, and sitting inthe dark isolated, the customer may come to the conclusion that they could easily do this at home.

Cinepolis, the Mexican movie chain is launching two new flagship cinemas, which will create an interactive movie theater for kids. Cinépolis realizes that sometimes kids get bored watching a movie and have installed a playground in the front of the theater, and has now created cinemas complete with full-sized playgrounds for kids within the viewing rooms. These unconventional cinema spaces feature bean bags, 55-foot slides, comfy lounge chairs and other pieces of equipment that kids ages three to 12 are invited to climb on. Frankly I could not imagine a worse way to see a movie.

Marcus has launched Bistroplex and has hired the former head of Smashburger to take the reins of this restaurant/movie theater concept. As soon as you name something “Bistro” anything, the focus is no longer on the movie but on the food. The movie at best is a sidebar.

These concepts that the multiplex would put forward will evolve, and many will fail. But one thing is for sure, these multiplexes will cease being movie theaters. I personally think movie going declined greatly with the concept of the multiplex being rolled out.

We are a very lonely society. Social media has dispensed with on a superficial level the need to interact with people. People are increasingly disconnected. The cure for a good part of that are these community based theaters that fill the deepest of needs to reflect and celebrate the make up of a specific community. By design and nature there is no uniformity to these theaters and should be evolved in order to bring into public view the issues and the needs of the community it serves. The Artcraft genuinely reflects Franklin, Indiana. A community theater gives a town its heart, it pumps connectedness and culture throughout the community it serves and in many ways it makes us stronger and it makes us one.

On a cold winter night, when a sometimes cruel Alberta clipper descends upon the Mid West, people in my town shall gather in a 623 seat movie theater and remind themselves that they belong to something. They belong to a town and more importantly they belong to an idea that somehow sharing stories told in the dark makes us stronger. They learn that through each other we enjoy things more, laugh harder and feel more deeply.

If this Christmas you are in search of Christmas Spirit, I suggest you look inside your neighborhood theater…it is there in spades. If your town does not have a genuine movie theater in it, then please go see a movie to the Historic Artcraft Theatre, 57 N Main St, Franklin, Indiana. In the seats, on the screen, in the projection booth and throughout the concession stand Christmas spirit flows freely and in pools in abundance. Community my dear readers, is truly the best special effect.