Indie theater watches summer audiences shrink



By Steve Contorno

It’s a story line made for Hollywood. A small, local theatre goes up against the big multiplexes in a fight for survival. Can a single-screen theatre thrive in a market dominated by corporations, giant movie posters and people dressed up as pandas?

Located in downtown Champaign, it could be mistaken for an old apartment building if not for the oversized marquee.

With just 224 seats, the Boardman’s Art Theatre, 126 W. Church St., has found a niche playing independent films for interested audiences.

But during the summer months when the majority of University students are no longer living in the area, the theatre loses a good portion of its audience, said Art’s manager Yvonne Green. To increase revenue, the theatre has occasionally played the blockbuster hits that its in-town competitors also feature. For the past two weeks, the film re-adaptation of Marvel’s comic book “The Hulk” starring Edward Norton rolled on Art’s silver screen.

“(Sales) haven’t been as good as expected. I was pretty disappointed,” Green said.

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For Thursday’s 4:15 show, only three people took their seats to watch the film. The decision to play the movie at Art didn’t even make a blip on other local theatres’ radars.

“I was actually not even aware they were running it,” said Kelli Kralman, an assistant manager at Goodrich Savoy Theatre, 232 Burwash Ave. “We’re pretty confident when a movie comes out we’ll get a lot of the business.”

A ‘Hulk’ of a problem

Green said playing similar box office hits has been successful with other films in the past; that just has not carried over to “The Hulk.”

Green halfheartedly placed some of the blame on University alumni Ang Lee and Roger Ebert.

“People think that because we’re a small theatre that we play movies second run, so they think it’s the old ‘Hulk,'” Green said, referring to the 2003 movie directed by Ang Lee and shown earlier this year at Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival. “Because Ebertfest had it, everyone thought it was the same.”

In order to run a major motion picture like “The Hulk,” Green said movie agencies have to be convinced Art can compete against the larger first-run cinemas in the area.

“We have to explain our grosses versus multiplex theatres and prove that we can still sell a lot of tickets,” Green said. “We need a good track record of our runs versus big theatres in order for a company to let us play it.”

Because of the success playing “King Kong” in 2005, Green said Universal Pictures allowed Art to run “The Hulk” these past two weeks. The multiplexes in the area don’t have to plead their case to agencies like Art does.

“It’s definitely up to the (movie) company, but I’ve never seen us run into any problems playing a movie,” said Kralman.

Parking dilemma

Goodrich, and its top competitor, Beverly Cinema, 910 Meijer Drive, have another advantage over Art: parking. Located in more open spaces, the two multiplexes have large lots with plenty of space for patrons. Art is in downtown Champaign, where parking is shared with the rest of the tightly packed commercial district.

“Parking is not so hot,” Green said. “The city is taking all of our parking.”

Art’s parking issues should be solved in February when the city of Champaign completes a six-story, 600 space lot near Art. City Planner T.J. Blakeman contends that the lots that were “taken” by the city – an 80-space leased lot and a 100-space permit lot – will be supplemented by the new lot.

In the meantime, the city is doing all it can to prevent businesses from taking a hit, said Stacy Rachel, parking services supervisor for the city of Champaign.

“As far as directing people, we’ve been promoting the area by saying, ‘Even though construction is taking place, the businesses are still open,'” Rachel said.

Blakeman said the city has also put in 18 additional meters near Church Street and have expanded time limits on meters on Randolph Street from two hours to three to accommodate theatre patrons.

“There’s a lot of parking on Church Street as well that is grossly under utilized,” Blakeman said.

Adding just 18 meters to replace 180 lot spaces is causing the problems that Green prescribed. But Blakeman said the sacrifice is necessary now to solve a problem that business owners in the area have been bringing up for a decade.

“We’ve heard for the past 10 years that the biggest complaint is that the city needs to get more parking. Art was one of those as well that gave input,” Blakeman said.

Green admitted that particular issue should go away when the 600-space lot is completed, especially since it is being constructed right behind the theatre. But until then, parking could still be a problem for patrons.

“People are definitely upset,” said Jonathan Smiley, assistant manager.

Decidedly independent

Although “The Hulk” has not reached its expected potential, Green said the theatre will continue to take a chance on some blockbusters later in the summer.

“I would really like to get ‘Batman (The Dark Knight),’ but there’s only so much the multiplexes will let us get,” Green said.

In the meantime, Art is content to show independent films. Smiley, a graduate student at Illinois State University and a University alumnus, said he has come to appreciate the movies played at Art and the audiences drawn there.

“There’s thousands of students at the University and not all of them are going to like the million-dollar films with big-name stars,” Smiley said. “You have to be a movie buff to like the independent films.”

The independent films aren’t a favorite of the K-8 crowd, Green said, and Goodrich theatre is able to take advantage of school being out for summer by playing kids’ shows.

“We have $1 kid shows during summer that are good for camps and day care,” said Leigh Cunningham, an assistant manager at Goodrich. “For ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ Newberry Academy (a martial arts school) came and there was someone dressed as a panda for the kids.”

Friday will feature a return to the independent scene that Art has had success with in the past. “The Fall,” a critically acclaimed film released in 2006, is set to run starting Friday. Smiley expects a fuller theatre.

“The usual crowd that didn’t come to see ‘The Hulk’ are itching to come back,” he said.