Upgrade to deter non-Art films?

Dearest readers, do C-U Blogfidential a favor, eh? Please skim our weekly Calendar and imagine just how many days, weeks, years, and employee hours have gone into the operation of every single local movie house that has ever brought audiences laughter, sorrow, enlightenment, terror, and straight-up entertainment on downstate Illinois soil. How would you feel if you checked the Calendar one day to find its listings mysteriously light on suggestions of cinematic things for you to do? Or, if that darn Calendar vanished for good because all the types of events it once promoted vanished due to a lack of appropriate public spaces in which they could be held? You would be flabbergasted, right?

Right. Not an issue up for debate, then.

We’ve already banded together to provide an immediate future for one theater in Champaign this year. As our chants of “Save the Art Theater!” subside with the formal launch of the community-owned Art Theater Co-op, it’s time for the wiser in our ranks to consider survival tactics for the other non-multiplexes in our midst. Most of their operators currently struggle to score five- and six-figure sums per screen to equip them with high-definition projection. As discussed previously on CUBlog, the Hollywood studios will soon supply new releases exclusively in digital formats, forcing independent theaters to make big decisions as the chains receive a financial pass via reimbursement program they automatically qualify for.

The indies must willingly play the all-digital game, adapt to a different operating model, or perish. Some theaters have established strong enough lifelines to weather the storm. These include the Avon Theater in Decatur, run with commercial savvy by showman Skip Huston, the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, reaping the benefits of non-profit status and Champaign Park District ownership, and the Normal Theater in Normal, resurrected by the Town of Normal and fed with an eclectic programming diet not dependent on first-run follies. What of the others, then, particularly those located in smaller towns which can only draw so much attendance and revenue in this economy?

Two recent newspaper articles sought answers to that quandary. In a July feature written by Melissa Merli for the News-Gazette, the Art’s left(ist)-field victory is offset by the time-sensitive realities facing Mike Harroun and his Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In located in Gibson City as well as Randy Lizzio and his Onarga Theater in Onarga. Having already staged comebacks in their respective histories, both houses now employ Kickstarter campaigns, special events, and branded merchandise to raise awareness and collect funds for conversion. And, both are still tens of thousands of dollars shy from hitting their marks, with the Onarga selectively opening its doors this fall as the Harvest Moon hibernates through the winter.

Earlier in March, Dan Craft of the Bloomington Pantagraph examined the choices being made by several houses located west of the C-U. As of that writing the Princess Theater in LeRoy had elected to hold out on an upgrade (although evidence on their Web site proves they’ve accepted a digital fate), the Majestic Theatre in Streator and Clintonia Eagle Theaters in Clinton had also decided to postpone conversion, the Lincoln Theater 4 in Lincoln had already made the jump given their strongly performing Hollywood fare, and veteran Normal manager Dawn Riordan detailed how format and scheduling flexibility helps them remain competitive. Throughout these reports, one can sense various levels of frustration espoused by the operators, even those with a reasonable game plan in hand.

Despite the criticisms made across the media landscape by self-appointed cinema watchdogs who bemoan the contemporary movie-going experience, noting everything from overpriced tickets and dim projection to commercial intrusion and inexcusably rude behavior by audience members, we’re sure you’d agree a movie should be watched on the big screen for maximum impact. We’re also certain you’d hypothetically concur said movie should be watched on the big screen with other people who can exhibit courtesy (if not flat-out class) for two hours in a darkened auditorium. Think you could honestly rely on the multiplex to supply a comparable quality viewing experience every time you walk in with ticket in hand, should the little guys give up the four-wall ghost?


If the ranks of smaller theaters like the ones mentioned above become depleted during the next two years, we can blame hasty Hollywood decision-making and the overall perils of 21st century capitalism. If the remainder shut their doors soon after, leaving impersonal movie malls, televisions, computers, and portable devices to deliver the goods to consumers, we can only blame ourselves for allowing such an outcome. Let’s continue the Champaign-Urbana cinema renaissance started with the Art by attending the Harvest Moons and Onargas and Majestics and Princesses of our world, maybe even offering our talents to help make their community presence more vital than ever before.

Besides, your humble editor doesn’t want to be stuck trudging down to Theater 15 at the far end of the corridor for the rest of his natural life because that’s where they stick all the retro shows and obscure offerings he’d much rather watch than, oh, STAR WARS VII. ‘Nuff said!

~ Jason Pankoke

One Response to Upgrade to deter non-Art films?

  1. Lisa :

    I grew up at the Majestic in Streator, and I hear it’s gone through a number of ups and downs over the years. It was closed for a while, and re-opened basically just to get slapped in the face over the digital conversion. What fun, eh?

    What I really can’t understand is why distribution companies so selectively dish out the cash for upgrades. Presumably, the bigger chains could afford the conversion more easily than the indie theaters, right? So if you *had* to do for one group but not the other, why not do what you could to help the little theaters while the chains did for themselves? Water under the bridge, I suppose, but it still makes me wonder.

    Still hoping for a big comeback for Harvest Moon!