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From surviving to thriving

Posted: June 20, 2013 - 12:00am
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Manager Collette Costa hangs up a poster for their summer Filipino Film Fest in the window of the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theatre on Monday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Manager Collette Costa hangs up a poster for their summer Filipino Film Fest in the window of the Gold Town Nickelodeon Theatre on Monday.

It took Collette Costa and me a good 30 minutes to circle our interview back to the Gold Town Nickelodeon theater and away from local restaurant frustrations, the brown limes in her drink, a tourist’s question about tides, a secret airfare deal to New York, and bantering with our movie nut of a waiter. Her restless mind is a fast moving freeway of swerving cars, off ramps, and rough patches. Costa is chatty, interesting, talented and very passionate.

Many Juneauites know Costa from her lively appearances singing or emceeing at the Alaska Folk Festival. From Pelican resident, to radio station DJ, to restaurant owner, to theater manager, Collette Costa has finally come home to her film school roots. Today her passion is the Gold Town Nickelodeon, moving our local art house cinema from merely surviving to thriving.

Over the past few years, Costa has been working to learn from other independent theaters across the country, joining forces with a group called the Art House Convergence, which operates in cooperation with the Sundance Institute. Their purpose is to help independent cinema to survive.

Survival is not an overstatement. Art house theaters across the country are shutting down. The die-off is being driven by the large production companies, who have forced the transfer of movies from film to digital media. Most industry experts predict the end of film distribution to arrive within the next year or two; more than 80 percent of the country’s theaters have already made the switch.

But converting to a digital system is often not an option for a small business. A digital projector, where a theater plays what is essentially a hard drive sent from a distributor, costs around $60,000. That’s out of reach of most small operators who got their start by buying a second-hand 35 mm film projector for a thousand bucks.

Don’t the directors and stars of small films want the small theaters to stay open? Yes, said Costa, but surprisingly, they have little say. Studio profits are driven by the mainstream theaters. Art house film and theaters make up a percent of a percent of revenue for the production companies, Costa said. And the money coming in from art house cinema is nothing compared to the savings production companies will see by moving away from 35 mm film.

“Scorsese can’t even get 35 mm for his films anymore,” Costa added.

By the time the digital conversion is complete, Costa figures she won’t be able to play any new movies at the Gold Town. Her recent successes, like “Amour” and “Mud”, the mini-majors, won’t be possible.

It’s not all gloom and doom, fortunately. There are companies that may help tide the Gold Town over for a few more years. One is Proludio. Proludio acts as a way station between film distributors and independent theaters. A theater rents their computer equipment and software. The company reviews the movie titles the theater wants. If everything is okay, then Proludio will take the film from its distributor and convert it into their own format. The newly formatted film is then uploaded to the theater’s rented equipment and the movie can be shown.

Another line of strategy is tapping into the power of the internet. Costa recently joined a subscription service called Gathr, and even more promising, Tugg. These services provide an opportunity for Juneau residents to influence what is shown at the Nickelodeon. Gathr provides first run showings of high end independent cinema. By reviewing their website (www.gathr.us) you can choose a movie you are interested in and if enough Juneauites make reservations on the Gathr website to see it, the film will play at the Nickelodeon. The Tugg website (www.tugg.com) is very similar but has a much larger collection of films, including many older films like “The Princess Bride.”

Costa has also branched out by organizing special events at the theater, such as the “Not-So-Silent Film” series where live (often original) music is presented with a classic silent film. Next up in this series will be pianist Richard Dowling, one of this year’s Jazz & Classics guest artists, who will be back in town for another performance on Tuesday, July 16 at 7 p.m. There may be an additional show at 9 p.m. if demand requires. Costa has not chosen the film yet, but said it will likely be a classic comedy.

Live music is part of the Nickelodeon mix in other ways. Former Juneau musician Sean Tracey just did a concert with his Austin-based band, the Austin Steamers, and the KRNN concert series, now in its third year, will start up again in the fall. And the theater can be rented by private groups or organizations — for films or other events.

New events include the Summer Filipino Film Festival, ongoing at the theater this week. The festival will continue through July and possibly the summer. The three titles so far include “Machete Maidens Unleashed,” “Graceland” (the Philippines’ entry into the Oscars), and “Don’t Stop Believing: Everyman’s Journey,” and Costa is open to suggestions for other titles. The movies are playing during the daytime though the week, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with possible later showings for machete-themed films. The full schedule is available online at www.goldtownnick.com.

Costa has also been trying to crack the family market, with limited success. She played some family friendly matinees a while back — “I lost money on that.” She’s also thinking about showings of her main features specifically catered to parents of young children. Your child might be screaming, she said, “but so are everybody else’s.”

There’s always the option of turning the place into a nonprofit — 85 percent of the art house theaters in the US are nonprofit, she said — but Costa really wants to make a go of it as a business.

The theater first opened in the late 1990s as a venue for Lisle Hebert to show his original 30-minute film about the history of Juneau, also called “Gold Town.” Beginning in 2002, Hebert expanded his offerings to include independent films. In 2009 he sold the business to current owner Mark Ridgway, who hired Costa on as manager.

If all goes well, Costa said she would love to find a venue that would offer a second screen. This past week, “Mud” has been making money, but holding it over meant saying no to titles that could also have been drawing a crowd, such as the “Much Ado About Nothing” reboot by “Avengers” director Joss Whedon. A new place might also offer room for a kitchen, part of a long term goal to be a cinema brew pub for locals and tourists.

Moving, however, won’t be happening any time soon.

The new Nickelodeon is like a piñata. All sorts of different products will fall out of its belly … after you hit it … with a stick. (I’m sorry). The point is, there is more variety offered by the Gold Town Nickelodeon than ever before. If the Nickelodeon survives, as a two screened brewpub or a single screen multipurpose venue, it’ll be because of Costa.

• You can reach Clint J. Farr at cjfarr@hotmail.com.

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