It is a Friday afternoon, it’s fall in the Mid West. The air is crisp and the wind blows with a gentle reminder of summer. The ground in the morning is starting to have a soft mantle of frost in the mornings. The air is filled with the smell of the corn harvest, pollen mixes with the brittle remnants of dry cornstalks. The week is winding down for most.
At 4:00 o’clock a man in his 60’s leaves his house and gets into his car. He is wearing khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. The car is simple, plain and is a symbol of the man’s financial status. He is heading to a local wholesale club store to buy inventory for his business. Long ago he abandoned the distributors who plied their trade in his business, realizing that they were charging 12-15% more than his local Wal- Mart. He walks into the store and begins to fill his cart up with candy of all types. He has to make sure he has Sno-caps and Milk Duds for his older customers and Sour Patch Kids for his younger customers. He knows full well that the $.10 he puts in his pocket makes a difference.
He checks out, thanks the cashier and heads to his work, this man is an independent theater owner.
When he took over the theater 40 years ago, things were looking pretty good. That summer Star Wars had come out and it looked like he had hitched his wagon to a star. When he was finishing university Jaws had exploded, which made him excited to take the reins. His Dad was proud when he turned over the keys of the theater to him. He was leaving his son a substantive business. There was a brief ceremony under the marquee of the theater when this happened, the local paper came by and touch pictures. His grandfather had built the theater and sure there had been some tough times but the community had always pulled the theater through. Like all things business was cyclical, it had ups and it had downs.
The man drives up to the theater, he slows down to check out the facade. He has done this ritual for 40 years. He drives further down and finds a parking spot on a side street. He heads down the street carrying the grocery bags filled with his candy. He reaches the theater, drops the bags and starts to negotiate a fairly impressive key ring. He opens the door and picks up the bags and begins preparations prior to showtime. At one time he had someone do this for him, but business was slow. He turns on the marquee hoping the flashing lights attract customers. When the movies change he would be out on a Thursday with a pole changing the letters on the marquee. The studios are now forcing you to take the movies for a longer period of time, so changing the letters has ceased to be a weekly activity.
He steps behind the concession stand, he briefly looks at the Cretors machine that his father bought. It is still a workhorse and is solidly constructed. He turns the element of the popcorn kettle on. He then dumps in the popcorn kernel, large scoops of coconut oil and a couple of tablespoons of Flavicol. In a few minutes, the popcorn is exploding in the kettle and then spills out. The first kettle always creates the tone and the smell of the night. There is something seductive about the popping, the smell is intoxicating and there is almost an alchemy to it, changing hard kernels to tender pillows of corn starch.
The man remembers the days when he could not keep up when he and four concession hands had to give it their all in order to satisfy the demand of their customers. He would race changing out bag in the box syrups, sometimes a five-gallon bag of Coke would only last a weekend, he was that busy. Now he would be lucky to change out that bag every two weeks. The price was now around $73.00 a box, Coke claimed that it was the cost of the ingredients was rising. At one time the man thought that replacing Coke with a $30 a box competitor might be a good idea, but his customers wanted Coke. They supplied and the serviced the machine and as a result, they controlled what was hooked up to that machine. He was forced because of the need to maintain that machine to keep buying Coke. In the end, he figures he was paying that $43 dollar difference for the machines maintenance and the Coke name. Some weeks it was a bitter pill to swallow, especially when he wrote that check.
Things had been on a steady decline at the theater. 20 years ago a Super Walmart was built on the interstate, almost eliminating retail business in the downtown core. Now only the theater, a Rite-Aid, Pizza King and a tax preparation service remained. The County put in the social services office where Sears used to be, but that closed at 4 and did not help the local businesses.
The studios kept asking for more and delivered less. There were no advertising dollars. They expected you to pay for the building, staff, the advertising, light, and electric. They demanded that you move from 35mm to digital. The man and his wife took the money of their 401K to pay for that. Debt was something they tried to avoid if they could. Also there was something about the VPF fees that the studios dangled in front of the theaters’ owners he really didn’t trust. After the digital changeover took place, movies were being forced to be held over longer. The VPF fee which was supposed to help theaters actually just put more control in the hands of the studios and prevented theaters from showing alternative content. The VPF hurt the independent. Now that the VPF is over there are fewer movies to choose from.
Disney was the first in raising their share of a diminishing box office to 60%. The other studios followed. Times were great when that first week of a Marvel came out, but after that it died out. Whereat one time the man would play the picture for two weeks he was now forced to play it for 3. This caused him to miss booking a lot of first-run pictures and that would keep his theater fresh. It also reduced the money the theater made.
Movies were being released that did not speak to his customer base. They were either some kind of comic book movie or dramas that middle America had trouble understanding. His business declined. The hardest thing he had to do was to warn off his son from the business of theatrical exhibition. His son who joyfully worked behind the concession stand with his father, serving up popcorn and putting ice in drink cups. His son, who told all his grade 4 classmates that when he grew up he was going to run a movie theater just like his dad. When his son was 16 he took him fishing and told him that’s the business he loved, the business that sustained his grandfather and his father but was no longer an option for him. It broke his heart to tell his son this, but his son being a bright boy had already figured it out. That really hurt.
Tonight they were showing the third week of the latest Marvel movie. At 6:30 PM people started trickling in to see the show. He knew most of his customers, some of them greeted him by name. He had ticket sales at the concession stand to cut down on costs. At 6:30 PM a girl from the local high school put on a blue cloth vest and helped him serve concessions. The show started at 7:00 PM, 46 people showed up. He ran up to the projection booth and started the show. At the 9:30 PM show 18 people showed up. He had often thought of having one show a night.
After the second show started he turned off the marquee and began to tidy the concession stand. He let the girl leave at 10:30 PM. The movie finished and he thanked everyone for coming. He checked the bathrooms, put in new towels and toilet paper rolls, wiped the mirrors and the basins. He walked the auditorium floor, swept up the stray popcorn and wet mopped where drinks had been spilled. He did a final walk around the theater, satisfied he was the sole occupant he left the theater and locked the doors behind him.
He had gone to trade shows hoping to get ideas on how to jump-start his business. When he walked the hall it seemed that most of his fellow attendees didn’t even like movies, it was just a job to them. The trade associations were uniformly bureaucratic and seemed only to be concerned about their jobs. He came to the conclusion that these shows were only for the big boys and had little to do with movies and movie going. His wife liked Vegas, so at least there was that.
September was approaching and he knew that business would again diminish. He looked up at the marquee, he reflects on the reaction of the audience, the excitement of the kids coming out of the theater. He remembers his time behind the concession stand and the pride his father had when he turned the theater over to him. He was 63, two years away from retirement if he worked in a factory or had a pension. A one time you could sell a theater-like this, but not now. The money he had to take home was increasingly lean.
He walked back to his car, seeing the damage that corporatism had inflicted on his town. He sighed remembering how while he was dating his wife, the streets would be filled with people. He opened his car door, climbs into it and drives away. He arrived home, he changes into his pajamas and slid into bed next to his wife of 37 years. She asks how the show was, he replied good. She goes back to sleep and he worries.
Everything in this life has its core a simple truth. I think movie going has a simple truth. A truth not reflected at the large circuits but a truth that still existed in the purest form of movie-going. I had set out to shine a light on some of the heroes of this business. I am closing this series off with a tribute to the local theater owner whom day and day out through his or her own guile and perseverance manage to keep their theater afloat. At the end of the day my heart is with them and the struggles that have been imposed on them. How they have been treated by the studios, by corporate America, and by the larger circuits is not right in fact I think its criminal. The drive-in owner and the small-town theater operator is where the truth of this business lays. This is the heart of movie-going…..this is the legacy that must endure and be protected. Once you lose the heart nothing is left.
Thank you for keeping a valued tradition alive, thank you for your sacrifice and thank you for your heart. Thank you for loving the movies.