Northampton’s Other Movie House
Academy’s Demise Obscures
Pleasant Street Theater’s Role
By Edward Shanahan
All but buried by the anger, accusations and public mourning that surrounded the end of movies at the Academy of Music was any acknowledgement that there is still a movie house in Northampton, the Pleasant Street Theater.
And no one was more miffed by the conspicuous lack of mention about the two screen independent theater than its owner of the last four years, Robert Lawton.
The 31-year-old Pleasant Street Theater, with 125 seats in the upstairs venue and 41 downstairs, can conceivably show three films in the course of a week to a combined audience of just under 3,000, which, of course, hardly ever happens.
As for being a player in the film life of the city, the Pleasant Street Theater has long been more influential and successful than the Academy, while less historic and elegant than the much admired city-owned Academy.
Downstreet.net sat down with Lawton at his other enterprise, a strikingly attractive art/design gallery and shop, Artifacts 20th Century, at 28 North Maple St. in Florence, to talk about the film business, changes in the wind and the future of his funky downtown movie house.
Since the Academy stopped showing movies and all but went dark a few weeks ago, Lawton says his theater has not seen any uptick in business. “The Academy has not been a factor for long time,” he said.
He can understand why the Academy could no longer make it, given his own experience. With only a single screen and cavernous space, the Academy only rarely could fill the house, perhaps one or two weeks a year, Lawton said.
And because of the historic nature of the Academy building “you can’t just throw another screen upstairs like a private developer could.”
Meanwhile, as for Pleasant Street Theater, he is clearly concerned about the impact on his business from the newly renovated, revived and reopened Amherst Cinema with its three screens and frequent showings.
“The Amherst Cinema is good for filmgoers because more films are playing in the area,” he said. But overall, he does not believe there are enough movie fans to support adequately both his theater and the one in Amherst. Much of the core audience for the kind of serious or art films shown at the Pleasant Street was made up of people drawn from Amherst, Belchertown and Shutesbury, who now have a nearby option.
While the Pleasant Street Theater has a seating capacity of almost 3,000 patrons per week, it turns out that most customers want to attend the same two or three showings on weekend nights, Lawton explained. A popular movie might sell out by 6:30, leaving those who arrive after that extremely disappointed. Thus, while there are 20 other showings a week they are not in tune with the public’s viewing habits.
And more importantly, “the core audience is dying off in terms of art films,” Lawton says. His basic audience are people in their 50s and 60s, or even older “seniors” who patronize the Wednesday morning movies with free drinks and popcorn, matinees and early evening shows.
“That’s the crowd that has always supported the theater,” he said. The younger generation “doesn’t care about film in the way we used to when we were growing up … and saw all the movies at the revival houses.”
Lawton says it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what his core audience wants. Movies with a high violence quotient are out of favor, as are foreign language films and movies about war or fantasy.
“Our crowd, what do they want?” he asks rhetorically. “How adventuresome are they really?” So, he says, you try to “mix it up and break it up,” with a comedy, foreign film, and a movie with only the least bit of violence.
His own idea of film nirvana, he said, was a day recently when he drove to New York City to see three movies – “Letters from Iwo Jima,” at Sunshine Theater, “The Good German” at the Angelika Film Center, and “Army of Shadows” at the Film Forum. This marthon was interrupted only by lunch at Katz’s delicatessen. Of his outing, he said, “I could do that once a week and I’d be as happy as pie.”
Before buying the theater, Lawton had no on-the-job training other than having appeared in a few movies of no note, having friends in the business and putting a little money into some film projects.
He employs about a dozen or so people at the theater, four or five of them full-time who have been keeping things running at Pleasant Street for a long time.
Pleasant Street does not compete with the mall theaters which show the mass market films that come out in unending numbers week after week, even if there is no audience for them, Lawton observed. The major Hollywood distributors - Universal, Warner Bros., Sony – “just want every dollar, especially the first two weeks,” he said, so they flood the cinema complexes and bypass the art houses.
One of the great puzzles about the movie business is that only 10 to 15 percent of the movies released – what is called somewhat dismissively ‘product’ – make money; the rest are losers. “There are way too many movies being made,” he said, and most of them are “nothing but the dregs of the dregs.”
Another factor looming over the film industry and threatening small movie houses like Pleasant Street is the rapidly evolving technology that is keeping people at home watching films ordered on-line through Netflix or by downloaded directly from the cable provider.
Citing a recent article by film critic David Denby in The New Yorker magazine, Lawton foresees with apprehension a time when all movies are digitally produced and distributed by satellite to people’s homes to either rent or buy.
In addition, that is how movies will soon be delivered to movie houses, rendering film obsolete and no longer requiring the transportation of cumbersome and expensive movie prints - weighing between 35 and 50 pounds - from theater to theater.
But for the movie house of the future to be able to show such digitally transmitted movies an enormous investment of a hundreds of thousands of dollars will be required, which will be manageable for the mall theaters with the financial support of Hollywood studios, but not feasible for Pleasant Street, the Amherst Cinema, or, surely, the Academy.
“No one’s going to help me do it,” he said. “No studio will help me out” when the Big Digital Roll-Out occurs.
Still, it is probably premature to predict the end of movie theaters in the same way forecasts of the death of printed newspapers are likely overblown.
For now, he says, tthe Pleasant Street Theater is not on life support, and in fact continues to be financially stable, but certainly not robust. Overall, however, he said, he is “pretty pessimistic.”
Does he see the end of the Pleasant Street in a decade? “I don’t know, I haven’t a clue.”
Knowing what he does about today’s movie landscape, would he have bought the Pleasant Street Theater four years ago? “That’s a good question, it wouldn’t have had the same appeal.”
Still, he has to ask the question “how long can I hang in there” as he weighs the costs of operating the theater against “the enjoyment I get out of it.”
For now, the enjoyment, if not the payoff, is still there, both downtown and at his newer enterprise in Florence.
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