Locally owned movie houses hang on as more community service than business
(Editor’s note: This business-angle story follows Saturday’s feature on the people who own and run the movie theaters in Lake Placid, Tupper Lake and AuSable Forks.)
The cinema is a tough business. An oligopoly of companies runs the film scene, and internet streaming sap revenue from theaters. Yet the independent theaters of the Adirondacks keep projectors running and popcorn popping through a passion for film, dedicated viewers and the lowest ticket prices possible.
They survived an existential threat a few years ago, thanks to moviegoers’ donations. Since then they day ticket sales have remained stable or, in the case of Tupper Lake’s State Theater, increased.
The Hollywood Theater, a two-screen cinema in AuSable Forks, first opened in the 1920s but nearly drew the curtains in 2013 when the film industry went digital.
The theater closed in the 1980s and had long laid dormant before Cory and Sierra Hanf bought the building in 2006 and began reconstruction, taking on the enormous family project with their two sons. After replacing the roof, adding seats and putting more than $130,000 into filling the building with all the other things a movie theater needs, it opened the next year.
However, just six years later, its ability to provide the laughs, tears and thrills of blockbuster films was threatened. A digital conversion required the theater to be outfitted with new projecting systems as the industry would no longer release movies on film. In fact, due to the film shortage, the theater only opened one screen in the summer of 2013. The projectors cost $40,000 each, a crippling price for a postal worker and bus driver running a theater for the fun of it.
“We had to spend that money but not make any more money than we were already making,” Hanf said. “It was just to stay open. There was an acceptable loss that Hollywood [the industry] in general was willing to accept.”
Sierra, far from ready to give up on their passion project, began calling other North Country theaters and brainstorming ways to stay open. While chain theaters had converted, the other independently owned ones struggled to solve the same problem.
Word got around to the Adirondack North Country Association and Adirondack Film Society to start the Go Digital or Go Dark Campaign, a crowdfunding movement to fund projector costs for 10 North Country theaters.
The campaign was a success. Fans of the movies raised enough money to convert every cinema to the digital medium, locking in their moviegoing experiences at the Hollywood, Palace, State and seven other Adirondack theaters for years to come.
Tupper Lakers exceeded the State’s goal by so much that it made one of its theaters 3-D.
Barbara Clark from Lake Placid’s Palace Theatre personally wrote “thank you” cards for every donor to the campaign and remembers even the smallest donors.
“A little girl would come to a movie from Canada, and you’d get a letter from Canada with a five-dollar bill in it,” Barbara said. “It’s just as overwhelming as the big amounts.”
Low as they can go
The Palace opened May 29, 1926, right before the rise of “talkies.” Reg and Barbara Clark bought it in 1961, when ticket prices ranged around $1. Reg was a local funeral director then and continued to be until he recently passed on the job to his son.
The theater became more than a second job; it was a hobby, responsibility and ever-growing community gathering point. They “twinned” the theater, closing off the balcony for a second screen, and then split the balcony into two screens. They added a fourth screen in Saranac Lake and then moved it to a room in the back of the Palace in Lake Placid in 2000.
Running the cinema for nearly six decades, the Clarks have seen many practices and policies in the world of movies change, often causing difficulty for independent theater owners who want the freedom of choosing their own movies and prices. Distribution companies regulate an increasing amount of the theater, with companies recently restricting things like midnight releases and gift certificates.
As ticket sales have dropped nationwide, theaters such as the Palace rely on cheap tickets to fill seats. But distribution companies, starting with Fox in the early 2000s, began fixing ticket prices, strictly capping the minimum cost per ticket at $7 for adults and $5 for children. And that is what the Palace charges, except it lowers the adult rate to $6 for matinees.
Palace co-owner and granddaughter of the Reg and Barbara, Heather Clark is also currently screening $5 throwback films every Sunday to fundraise for the refurbishing for the Palace’s Robert Morton pipe organ, one of five remaining original Morton organs located in its original home.
According to Reg Clark, Disney distribution requires that the theater charge for infants and even randomly checks in on theaters such as the Palace to make sure the viewer-to-ticket-sale ratio is correct.
Cory Hanf had hoped that, with the industry transitioning to digital, the price they pay for a copy of a film would drop. However, even though wiping and adding a new movie to a hard drive is less expensive than producing film, the price has stayed $35 for the average movie.
They also struggle to get less popular flicks as limited copies mean larger, more lucrative theaters take priority for financial gambles.
Owners of the Hollywood, Palace and State theaters all said they price their films as low as allowed. They are not running a business; they are running a service, according to Corey Hanf and State Theater owner Sally Strasser.
Hanf and Heather said the Hollywood and Palace are selling about the same number of tickets as they did before the digital conversion, although the Heather said sales everywhere have gradually declined over the last decade or so.
State of the State
Strasser acquired the 103-year-old State Theater in Tupper Lake in 2004 but had worked with film for years beforehand, running projectors for the likes of Martin Scorsese.
“I’ve been in theaters forever,” she said.
She knows technicians who have access to secondhand projection systems from the Museum of Modern Art, sound processors from Dolby and theater seats that look as good as new.
Strasser saves money by doing things herself, simultaneously working as a booking agent, manager and projectionist at the State to keep ticket prices the lowest allowed by the distribution companies.
“I make it as cheap as I can so that it doesn’t go out of business, so this is not a profitable theater,” Strasser said. “I just sort of do the work. I kind of run it like its a nonprofit.”
Strasser has used grant money to improve the State, twinning it, carpeting it and running all new sound and image equipment through the building.
She said she sells around 11,000 movie tickets annually and added thats business has been up since the digital switch. Before then, the State had to close for several months at a time because prints were becoming scarce and Strasser was paying to heat the place from her projecting salary.
Strasser said there are times when the theater is not turning a profit and may even cut into her own finances. Nevertheless, she keeps prices as low as possible to bring as many people as possible to the State to enjoy movies with her.
“It’s a happy job,” Strasser said.