Speaking of overstatements, is the time-honored practice of exhibiting and watching movies in actual theaters really gonzo?
Calling on my ancient experience of theater management, I’ll hazard that, if movie exhibition could survive the seventies, with its lean product and encroaching new technology (home video!) then the likes of streaming and a pandemic probably won’t kill it off. We spent just one year, April 1976 to March, 1977, trying to keep a 2,672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, alive and gleaming, its doors open, its popcorn popping. By “we,” I mean myself, my husband and a group of dedicated investors/staffers, all insanely in love with a red and gold six-story anachronism.
Spring of 1977, the end of our adventure, was probably the darkest season of my entire life. We’d washed out, and first wash-outs hurt in a primal way. Dean and I were head-over-heels in debt, pursued by the likes of Warner Brothers, United Artists, Paramount; you name a distributor, we owed them money. I asked Dean the other day his opinion of the possible coming demise of the movie business. Dean thinks in conversations, past and present. From his amazing memory, he called up a conversation he’d had in ’77, a few days after our departure from under the marquee.
Our sometime booking agent had called him at home to offer condolences. Rick probably felt a little guilty; we’d been his side-hustle (a direct conflict with his regular job, booking theaters for the mogul, Ted Mann), so he’d had to quit us. His departure had been a considerable nail in the coffin of our demise. If it had been hard for Rick to get us film in a product–lean year, it was nearly impossible for us to do it alone. Born and raised in Flatbush (Brooklyn), Rick loved our movie palace--reminded him of his boyhood palace, Loew’s Kings, at that point, already dark and in danger of demolition.
Here’s the conversation, direct from Dean’s archive, which is to say his memory:
Rick: Hey buddy boy! [He always called Dean “Buddy boy”]. Don’t be down. Gotta tell ya, I mean this is true, movie exhibition just might be a dyin’ business. I mean, looks like my boss (a major mogul of the day) might even hafta close a few screens, or sell ‘em off. Product...new releases look thin for the summer, and then, of course, there’s this new disease...video, something called BetaMax.
Dean: Yeah, I know...
We knew about the advent of videotape for home use; a management staff member/investor had actually suggested we might sell videotapes from the lobby! theorizing that if you can’t beat’em, join’em..
Rick: I mean, what are there right now? Ten, maybe twelve thousand screens nationwide? I’m bettin’ that in five years, seven or eight max, that’ll be like half. An’ don’t buy off on this multi-screen thing, or cuttin’ theaters in half or even thirds...it’s a short-sighted attempt to stay viable, ain’t gonna work.
Rick was partially right. “Twinning” and otherwise subdividing existing theaters, for the most part, didn’t work. However, that multi-screen fad he’d derided so roundly had already caught on with a vengeance, changing exhibition forever. Started, arguably, by Stan Durwood in Kansas City in 1963 the “Twin” phenomenon was full-blast by 1976. Only ten years after Rick’s chat with Dean, there’d be something like eighteen thousand screens across the U.S., with more opening every month. Twinning became multiplexing, and that morphed into megaplexing.
And in the following 30 years, the total screens in America, including drive-ins, would more than double — almost 41,000 screens coast-to-coast, heading into present times.
“Well,” Dean concludes. “Rick’s probably no longer in the business — but of course, neither are we.”
All this is by way of saying, that nothing ever completely dies, it just changes into something else. Or becomes a niche-audience thing; think drive-ins!
1. Rich Gelfond, CEO/Imax, observes, “I know it’s popular to say the world is forever changed, but I don’t think that 100 years of history gets changed in five months. Just like people have kitchens in their houses, they like going to restaurants. Just because people have a streaming service, I think they’re still going to want to go to the movies.” This from the Huffpost piece I read, which you shouldn’t miss.
2. Speaking of change, if you’re wondering what Betamax was, or even if you actually remember the Betamax/VHS wars, check it out. It’s the only major battle SONY ever lost.