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Goodbye/Hello to the Marshall CinemaPosted Saturday, August 14, 2010, at 1:13 AM
Earlier this month the Marshall-Democrat-News broke the news that the Marshall Cinema will be closing its doors on Aug.17. It was later reported that a local family would purchase the theater to continue its cinematic tradition. Photo by ANDREW D. WELLS
The news came as a blow to the town's psyche, even though it wasn't entirely a surprise. Many have commented about the childhood movie memories they've had of the old style movie house. While my childhood movie memories originate from an entirely different state, Marshall Cinema has been my primary source of cinema throughout my entire critical career. As a cineaste, it's difficult for me to see any cinema close.
What a relief then to learn only days later that a deal was being inked to ensure the continuation of the Marshall Cinema under new ownership. I'm not so sure how good this news is. Most of the concerns I voiced in this very blog two years ago in my feature "Is Marshall Cinema Dying?" remain no matter who the owner of the Marshall Cinema might be.
Film exhibition has become a cutthroat industry. What was good for film exhibition thirty, or even only twenty years ago, is not going to cut it for today's audiences. I fear seeing movies going back into the same movie house is akin to using a band-aid on a broken leg. The Marshall Cinema building is about the farthest thing there is from state of the art. The only way to play the movie game these days is to have the best and brightest attractions.
I would've liked to see a new cinema built in the absence of B & B's Marshall Cinema, a cinema built with today's standards of film exhibition. While I prefer film over digital, digital projectors are probably the future of the industry. Like it or hate it, 3D projection is here to stay if the exhibitors and the studios have anything to say about it, and they're pretty much the only ones that do. These are the innovations that the exhibition industry is betting on to help them through the threats of home theaters and instant streaming.
By purchasing the old building and equipment, despite the good intentions of the new owners, they're recycling the same problems that Marshallites have been complaining about in their cinematic experience over the past few years. The truth is, the Marshall Cinema building was not built to be a movie house, but rather a live theater house. Modern innovations in film exhibition highlight the theater's inadequacies in exhibiting films today. Modern sound systems are built for very specific conditions that don't exist in that old building. The current lighting in the theater is atrocious. And I don't know if anything can even be done to allow the projected image to actually fit properly onto the big screen in the main auditorium.
While nachos would be a good addition to the cinema menu and a new HVAC system is a necessity for the building, I don't know if these improvements will be enough to draw audiences back. I fear that murky pictures and muffled sound have an even greater impact on audience attendance than what is offered at the concession stand. Without resolving those issues, it will be hard to garner enough support for a positive cinematic movement in Marshall.
This is not to say I believe all hope is lost in the Marshall Cinema building. I have seen an old style theater like the one we have in Marshall restored to even greater glory than it ever had. The Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, Ill. is a great example of a beautiful movie house. It's one of my favorite places to see movies, and has the highest quality film exhibition I've ever seen anywhere. Falling under the authority of the Champaign Parks & Recreation Committee, the Virginia's restoration has been a community investment. It's possible to make an old theater work, but it's going to take more than the passion of just one family in town to do it.
Quality movies can also make or break audiences; first runs are a must. I believe B&B actually did a fairly good job getting the right movies in for Marshall the past couple of years, with a few exceptions here and there. They always tried to keep a family film close at hand. I wonder if they tried reaching the college audience as often as they could have, however. Choosing the right films might be the trickiest part of film exhibition these days, since so much pressure is put on films performing well their opening weekend. It takes someone who not only knows what they like to see, but what other people who might have vastly different tastes like as well.
Many people showed their enthusiasm for the Marshall Cinema to continue in the comments sections of the recent articles featured on the Marshall Democrat website. This enthusiasm couldn't please me more, but there are some details about film exhibition that are not generally known by the movie going public. The truth is there really isn't much wiggle room on ticket prices for first run movies. While an independent cinema can set their own prices, if the exhibitor doesn't charge enough, the distributors simply won't rent the prints to them. The studios take a very high percentage of an exhibitor's ticket sales, meaning the concessions are the only area the exhibitor can make any money. This is why concession prices are so high. So changing they way the cinema does business won't be quite as easy as imagined.
One thing few exhibitors capitalize on, however, are the promotional programs many of the distributors suggest to them. These programs often involve opening day contests for big franchise films, design contests for family films, and a whole interactive cinematic experience that could go over well for a small town audience like Marshall's. Many of these contests involve studio prizes of movie memorabilia that the public rarely sees, or even local prizes from local sponsors who can develop a cross promotional relationship with the theater. These are activities that could really be effective in creating a personal investment in the theater from the town's citizens, creating a stronger theater presence in the town.
There are many who believe that cinema is dying a slow death everywhere due to movie technology becoming cheaper and more prevalent in home use. While I enjoy having the conveniences of home entertainment, nothing would make me sadder than to see the death of cinema. I think a small town cinema is one of the better outlets to fight this death. By creating a personal investment for the cinema's patrons, it's possible the Marshall Cinema might become a stronger entity than it's ever been. I hope we can turn around the cinema's downward spiral with this new direction, so our children can create even better Marshall Cinema memories than we ever had.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.