Consistency and change

New owner of the Gold Town Nickelodeon plans to keep showing indie films while trying some new ideas

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fans of the Gold Town Nickelodeon will be relieved to hear that the theater's new owner plans to remain true to the heart of the business.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

"There are several reasons why I bought it, but the main one is that I like what it is," new owner Mark Ridgway said.

Ridgway will continue to show first-run independents, foreign films and documentaries, and said he intends to keep former owner Lisle Hebert on as film consultant.

Hebert opened the theater at the back of the Emporium Mall about ten years ago as a venue for showing his short documentary on Juneau's history, "Gold Town." In 2002 he began showing other films, and kept at it up until last month, when, finally worn down by financial woes and the difficulty of juggling the demands of the business with those of his family and his job as a social worker, he sold it to Ridgway.

Over the years Hebert developed a core audience, those who appreciate an alternative to mainstream blockbuster films. Ridgway hopes to keep that core audience, while building a broader patron base. He's got lots of ideas on how to go about that - and has received an earful from friends and neighbors.

"If I had a buck for every idea I've heard I'd already be in the black," he said. "But they're really good ideas."

In addition to the prime-time viewing of the first-run independents, Ridgway wants to add late-night showings of classics, cult classics or general-interest movies, as well as a regular Saturday matinee for kids.

Fresh ideas

The theater already shows the influence of Ridgway's enthusiasm for the project. He's repainted the walls of the lobby - a cake-batter yellow and a deep, twilight blue selected by his wife, artist Heather Ridgway - installed new light fixtures and cleaned the space top to bottom. He's also purchased a large wood and glass candy counter that he wants to fill with a tempting array of "good healthy candy." He may add a few tables and chairs under the windows, and eventually expand his food options to include simple items like pizza.

He also wants to attach cushions to the classic - and unforgiving - wooden seats (he'll also keep the current supply of loose cushions), and possibly introduce a sofa or two in the back row.

Other changes in the works include the possibility of a small stage directly below the screen in the theater, and an accompanying proscenium and curtains. This would encourage other uses of the space, such as renting it out to groups looking for a performance venue more intimate than the JDHS auditorium.

Ridgway, a Coast Guard contractor with no previous theater experience, said another reason for buying the theater was his interest in keeping downtown alive. In that vein he hopes to build relationships with other businesses. He has already talked to the owner of Juneau's Imagination Station about kids activities, and he hopes to become more involved with Lucid Reverie, Pat Race's business that's right down the hall.

Advertising is also going to get a boost.

"I know a guy who's been here 16 years, and he'd never heard of (the theater)," Ridgway said. "It happens all the time.

The digital transition

Ridgway also is considering installing a digital projector, although he says he would hate to lose the "tchk, tchk, tchk" noise made by the film projector.

"It's part of the ambiance of going to see a movie," he says.

Though lacking ambient noise, a digital projector would save the theater $140 per film (i.e. per week) in shipping costs round trip to Seattle. However, the initial cash outlay for the machine is daunting - a good digital projector for a full-size theater runs about $50,000 and up. For a small theater like Gold Town, one might be had for $10,000 if they got lucky. But the number is proportionately still a fortune.

He's not the only one daunted by the high cost of digital projectors. The expense has kept theaters across the country hooked on 35 mm film, even as more and more movies are shot in a digital format. According to statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America, only about 5,400 out of the 40,194 movie screens in the US are showing digital films.

But things are slowly beginning to change. A March 29 article in the New York Times reported that Sony signed a $315 million deal to put digital projectors in all AMC theaters nationwide. The installation is slated to begin in the second quarter this year and continue through 2012.

Ridgway said he would ideally like to get a digital projector and keep the one he has; made in 1952, the film projector still runs "like a clock," he said.

A blessing and a curse

The switch to digital has both helped and hindered the independent film industry. On the plus side, digital cameras have opened up the field by eliminating the costs of film and processing and giving cinematographers affordable access to the tools of the trade.

"More and more people can make films now," Hebert said. "So you are getting a greater variety of viewpoints."

According to the MPAA, the number of films released domestically in 2008 increased 1.8 percent to 610 films. Of those films, 26 percent were MPAA members' releases and 73 percent were independent films. (MPAA members include the "big six" movie giants: Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures. Twentieth Century Fox, NBC Universal, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Some movie companies considered "independents" are actually subsidiaries of the big six, such as Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus Features.)

On the negative side, these digital projects must be transferred to 35 mm if they're to be shown in most theaters, since most still have film projectors -- a move that seems counter-productive, and adds back in the costs that were initially avoided.

Ironically, the bigger names in cinema who can afford to transfer their digital films into 35 mm format are usually the same people who still shoot in film in the first place. Hebert said big Hollywood moves and well-financed independents continue to shoot 35 mm but he doesn't know why, as he can't tell the difference between that and high-end digital product.

"Probably a really great cinematographer could tell the difference, but I can't," he said.

D-V-D hasn't spelled disaster for the theater industry

Digitally-formatted films have not been the disaster for movie theaters that was predicted. Although Netflix has been around since 1998, right about the time when DVDs were made widely available to the public, box office numbers have continued to rise.

The domestic box office reached its highest total in history in 2008 at $9.8 billion, according to the MPAA, an increase of 1.7 percent over 2007 and up 6.8 percent over five years ago.

A Techdirt article by Mike Masnick ( recasts the DVD argument this way:

"(Theaters are) not in the business of showing people movies. They're in the business of providing a good overall social experience."

Ridgway agrees.

"You can have a wide range of movies mailed to your doorstep, you never have to leave your house to find that type of video entertainment, but a movie is a group activity. It's going out and doing something."

It's also, he says, an alternative to Juneau's bar scene.

"(There's) nothing wrong with bars, but it's another option, and I'm trying to make it as appealing an option as I can," he said.

A good story, well-told

An added draw for the Gold Town is that they show movies that aren't available anywhere else. They aren't yet out on DVD and, in many cases they're obscure enough that most people would never seek them out anyway.

Ridgway said he believes the strength of these movies is in the storytelling aspect.

"This theater's focus is on good stories, really good stories," he said.

But though Gold Town has established a reputation for a high-quality, interesting films, Hebert said it's not always easy to bring in a crowd (or even a handful). Part of the delicate balance he faced in running the theater all these years has been between satisfying the audience's desire to be entertained, and his desire to give them something more.

"People really want distraction," he said. "More than anything. Distraction from the boredom of their jobs, or the tragedy of their lives, or their friends lives, or the world, and so they come to a movie to be entertained. And if they come to a movie and they see reality again, it's like a slap in the face."

At the same time, Hebert says he is happy that he was able to bring so many high-caliber films to town and expose audiences to things they might not have had the chance to see.

"I think that's one of the things that the theater has done well, is taking people out of our own little world to other countries, to other, more honest perspectives," he said. "It's not entertainment sometimes, it's looking at the world with a candid eye. And I'm proud of that."

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