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In search of a new indie film theater: How it might work here


There are exploratory rumblings around town about filling a glaring gap in Portland's art world – a dedicated, indie movie house, which is good news for film enthusiasts. Since "The Movies on Exchange" vacated its Exchange Street digs in 2009 and evolved (with very limited screenings) into “PMA Movies,” Portland has been without a true, independent movie theater.

But is it viable? How do you launch a successful film theater in 2013?

Discussions with a couple of local film stewards offer some interesting possibilities, which include a non-profit model or a restaurant/bar/theater model – such as Brunswick’s Frontier Cinema. (Whatever the case, there’s little talk about a standalone, film-only, for-profit art theater. That model has gone the way of 35-millimeter prints and ushers.)

It’s encouraging to learn that SPACE Gallery co-founder Jon Courtney has met with "a handful" of people about a stand-alone theater, and SPACE has had some early discussions about getting behind a dedicated theater.

What might work

I recently spoke with Courtney and Steve Halpert, two of Portland's most qualified experts on indie cinema, about what might work here.

Courtney programs films for SPACE, and Halpert and his wife, Judy, ran the much-missed "Movies" from 1980-2009. Halpert continues to program "PMA Movies," a scaled back effort that has three screenings a week at Portland Museum of Art.

In a perfect world, both men envision a theater with two (or more) screens. Courtney sees one screening room with 120-150 seats, the other with 75. The 120-seater would feature more-popular films, helping to subsidize the screening of edgier fare in the smaller venue.

By necessity the theater would exist as some sort of mixed-use facility – for example, with food and alcohol subsidizing the films. (Here’s hoping a new theater wouldn't mimic the former, downtown Keystone theater, which featured giant, swiveling, “pleather” recliners, bad food and wait service DURING films.)

Additionally, Courtney envisions that the theater would be a non-profit, with tax savings and the opportunity to secure grants. Halpert's Movies were a for-profit venture. But he agrees that a non-profit model might now make sense, since any financial edge would help.

There might also be an opportunity for partnering with local educational organizations. For example, Tyler Johnston, executive director of the Portland Maine Film Festival, wonders if there might be an opportunity for a theater to function as part of a Portland-based resource center for an organization such as Rockport’s Maine Media Workshops.

What it would take

In short, money, a space and experience are the necessary components of sustainable success.

About $1 million for startup costs – roughly estimated by Courtney, who has plenty of art space build-out experience. 

When talking to locals about venues, I assumed the need for existing space, with raked floor, site lines, etc. Interestingly, Courtney said that a new cinema needn’t slide into an existing theater and that there are examples of successful theaters (Models Elsewhere) in converted power plants, mills and other repurposed spaces. Without getting into specifics he indicated Portland does have some appropriate spaces.

“Experience” speaks for itself. Running any venue is hard work. Throw a medium in transition into the mix and someone really needs to know what he or she is doing. In general, the jury is out on the future of indie theaters, which are coming off a period of transition in which they converted from film to digital projection.

Finally, it’s not a matter of pouring money into a project; it’s knowing where and how to pour. (For the record, Steve Halpert says he would be happy to share this considerable knowledge about Portland cinema.)

A little history

The rise and fall of Halpert's "Movies" is a function of the evolution of Portland's cultural life.

When the "Movies" launched in 1976 there wasn't a lot going on in Portland's entertainment landscape. "The Movies" screened films seven days a week – afternoons and evenings. The theater showed a collection of art house and classics. It's worth recalling a film world before video rentals. The chance to actually SEE the "Maltese Falcon" or a Wood Allen retrospective was a big deal. “The Movies” was the only game in town.

Eventually, Portland’s entertainment options multiplied, cutting into audience; the downtown Nickelodeon Theatre, a Patriot chain venue, took note of Halpert’s success and programmed artier films, further cutting into audience. Add in high rent, the birth of VCRs, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming . . . you get the picture.

So, today in Portland we are down to three imperfect film choices: 

  • Space Gallery, which features a flat floor and a pole. Courtney says attendance averages around 50-90;
  • thrice weekly screenings at the “PMA Movies” are a rather sterile experience; buttered Popcorn and Junior Mints don't mesh well with an art museum environment, and security concerns limit screening times to hours the museum is open. In 2012, attendance at PMA was 7,566, up from 7,163 in 2011; and
  • the Nick, which features some indie films among standard fair. However, the Nick is never TOO edgy. You won't be seeing a Kenneth Anger retrospective any time soon.


Thanking those who have kept the flame alive

It is important to note the efforts of a few dedicated people such as Courtney, the Halperts and others responsible for bringing a thoughtful mix of quality films to Portland. 

Thank you.

Time will tell if the current rumblings turn into reality. There are many moving parts in birthing a new theater, but here’s to a happy ending.


Models elsewhere

Courtney offered the following examples of intriguing models for a theater. While the scale of Winston/Salem, N.C., and the “other” Portland are much different from our city, it is still worth taking a look a what’s working elsewhere.

A two-screen model that Courtney likes is the a/perture theater in Winston/Salem, N.C., which features evening screenings seven days a week with additional matinees on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

When I asked about a dearth of available downtown theater spaces, Courtney explained that it's not necessary to move into an existing space. He pointed to the McMenamins theaters in the other Portland as examples of converting intriguing existing spaces into theaters. McMenamins has theaters in a former school, power plant, poor farm. The theaters features an eclectic mix, with Fast & Furious 6 playing alongside “Roman Holiday.”

Courtney points to Columbia, Missouri’s Ragtag Cinema as a non-profit model. Ragtag, epicenter of the thriving True/False Festival, features a bakery and 9th Street Video (Columbia’s answer to our own VideoPort.) 

While in Portland’s population ballpark, Columbia is the quintessential Midwest college town with 34,000 students downtown at the University of Missouri. Throw in the profs and you have, a short walk away, a ready-made audience with a bit of free time and a thirst for entertainment.


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