Lights, camera, Independence

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2004

The envelopes began appearing under the doorstep of The Gold Town Nickelodeon soon after an appeal from local residents Jane Terzis and Pat White appeared on the editorial page of the July 20 Juneau Empire.

"If you can afford to," Terzis wrote, "mail a check to the Gold Town Nickelodeon theater at 174 S. Franklin Street, Juneau, AK 99801, for the amount that you would have spent if you had seen ('Fahrenheit 9/11') there."

She was referring to a scheduling error by distributor Lions Gate Films that led to "Fahrenheit," Michael Moore's acclaimed anti-war documentary, being double-booked at the Nickelodeon and Gross-Alaska's nearby 20th Century Theatre.

When the mistake was caught, four days before the film opened in Juneau, Gross was rewarded exclusive rights, in part because of its larger auditorium.

It was not Gross's fault. But Nickelodeon majority owner Lisle Hebert, who depends on popular independent films like Moore's for an injection of cash, was out a guaranteed moneymaker.

"I would've gone to see '9/11' (at the Nickelodeon), and I thought the letter to the editor by Jane was great," said Juneau resident Mary Claire Harris, who attends films at the Nickelodeon once or twice a month. "(Lisle) brings such great movies to town, and you can't usually rent them. He puts himself out on a financial limb really."

Hebert has run the Nickelodeon since 1999. Since 2002, he's shown independent and foreign films, classics and documentaries every weekend. He has bailed out the theater with his own money a handful of times, and in March 2003 the theater was in such grim financial straits that it appeared its days were numbered.

Since then, mostly through word of mouth, the theater has cultivated a following steady enough to consistently pay for rent, utilities, films, maintenance and a $12-an-hour wage to each night's projectionist.

But still, the theater wavers on insolvency. Hebert says he makes nothing off the top. June was a particularly brutal month. Hebert blamed the warm weather for the low turnout to "Sunset Boulevard" and "Battle of Algiers."

During the weekend that "Fahrenheit" opened at 20th Century, Hebert showed nothing, assuming that his crowd would be two blocks away watching Moore's film. The distributor's error was nothing less than discouraging, and once again made him wonder whether his time was well-spent.

"I've been putting a lot of my time in it for years now, and I would rather be directing my free time toward other things," Hebert said. "Other people are interested in taking it over and perhaps running it, and that's probably the direction it will go. But I don't know anybody that could make a living out of it.

"As far as a real solvent business, it hasn't reached that point yet, but we do pay our bills," he said. "I feel like we have a loyal following of people who like having the luxury of having an art house theater in Juneau, and it's going to continue."

"I think people enjoy coming in here," he said. "They like having real butter, they like not getting gouged at every turn, they like the funky atmosphere down here, and they like that they don't get assaulted with ads when they're sitting there waiting for the movie to start. To me, that's part of a nice evening. You go out with some friends, you're able to talk, you see friends you haven't seen for a while, and you just go out and have a good time after dinner."

How did the Nickelodeon come to be? What problems would a new owner inherit? And what goes into running an independent movie house on an island-like town of just more than 30,000 people?

First, let's go back to the beginning.

A little history

The Nickelodeon is not Juneau's first art house cinema.

As far back as the early 1960s, an informal group of local volunteers calling itself the Juneau Film Society would meet to decide what films its members wanted to see. They'd contact distributors and rent the pictures by mail. Local halls and theaters lent their screens for a small fee.

They were mostly foreign films. George Rogers and his wife, Jean, remember watching "The Baker's Wife," a 1938 French film.

"It was very much like the Nickelodeon, except it was done by all volunteers," said Juneau resident George Rogers, who attended the films with Jean. They brought their oldest daughter to her first French film when she was 16. She's now 57.

"There were a lot of movies that people in town wanted to see," Rogers said. "It was the usual art-theater-type fare."

"You couldn't believe how isolated we were," he said. "We had to wait a whole year to get a first-run picture up here. Magazines were about a month off, too."

At one point, Rogers remembers, the nights were taken over by two young women who would dress formally and introduce each film.

"We always had a wonderful time," he said.

But the Film Society eventually disappeared.

Art movies returned to Juneau in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The New Orpheum Theatre was located in a space, since remodeled, between Rock Paper Scissors (245 Marine Way) and South Franklin Street.

"It was a place you'd go out and drink coffee and also see a movie," Hebert said. "They eked out a living on it."

"It was like a combination of the Nickelodeon with Heritage Coffee and the (Silverbow) Back Room and a little bit of Invisible World," said Juneau resident Patricia Hull, who worked at the New Orpheum in the early 1980s. "It was Juneau's living room."

The New Orpheum closed in the mid-1980s.

Hollywood and back

Hebert, born and raised in Juneau, attended movies at the Film Society growing up. He attended Shimer College in Mount Carroll, Ill., went to film school and returned to Juneau in the early 1970s. He's been a fan of cinema all his life.

"There are many great Hollywood films, but most of them are pretty much formula," he said. "You see a film from a foreign country and sometimes they're so-so, but sometimes it's a different perspective on life."

After school, Hebert spent most of his adult life making his own films. When, as he puts it, "oil was flowing freely out of the ground," the state was giving out more contracts to make informational films.

"It didn't keep me busy all the time," he said, "but if I had one of these projects it could tide me over."

In 1983, he decided to try his luck in the notorious rat-race of Hollywood film production. He caught on as a sound editor, working on major films such as "Bat 21," recurring series such as PBS' "Explorer," novelty pictures like "Treasure of the Moon Goddess," a music video for the influential skate-punk band Suicidal Tendencies, and a list of other projects he calls "so bent" that he would not want his children to watch.

"Working on finding work was my main occupation," he said.

The money was good when he was working, but there were lots of times he wasn't. Gradually, the grind of the Hollywood hustle, with its outright nepotism and back-biting, became intolerable. He and his first wife also had two kids, now 24 and 22, to support. He moved back to Juneau in 1990.

Now living on Starr Hill with his second wife, Claire Richardson, and their daughter, Gabriella, Hebert is the manager of the clubhouse of the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health's day service center.

He helps clients get their medication, hang out, have lunch, play pool, paint, listen to music and socialize. He's worked there for 10 years.

The original idea

"When I go to a town," Hebert said, "I'm always interested in what the reason for the town being there is."

That was the basic premise behind "Goldtown," a 27-minute documentary on Juneau's history that Hebert began in 1997. The film chronicles the birth of Juneau, even before the gold boom of the 1880s. It stars 18 local actors and cost $72,000.

Hebert wanted to show the film at its own theater. He raised $100,000 through private individuals. He and the investors formed a limited-liability corporation. They secured an empty room, facing City Hall, in the Emporium Mall. It used to be part of Alaska Laundry. In the ceiling, you can still see the large rollers, parts of the big pulleys from the steam laundry.

Hebert and volunteers added wallboard and sound insulation, and fire-proofed the space to city specifications. Scott Eales, who was working with Heritage Coffee at the time and had helped design theaters in Los Angeles, knew how far the projector had to be from the screen and had a list of contacts for film equipment. He helped secure a 35mm projector from a retired projectionist in Long Beach, Calif., who stockpiled gear in his garage.

The plan was to open The Gold Town Nickelodeon as a summertime tourist venue in 1999, and show "Goldtown" eight to 10 times a day for $5 admission. The problem was breaking into the cruise ship tourist market, dominated by big-ticket trips that take up most of tourists' half-day stops in town.

"To really do business, you have to be promoted on board the ships," Hebert said. "As I understand it, the tours that are going to be sold to Outside promoters are the ones that have big money and big numbers, so there will be a commission for the cruise line.

"That's legitimate," he said. "They're selling it. They're promoting it. They're transporting people to the tour. That's fine if you have a high-ticket item, like flightseeing over the glacier, which costs maybe $150. But if you only have a $5 ticket item, and it ties people up for 40 to 50 minutes, then you're basically spending a lot of time for not much profit. No one ever really got interested. That's what was wrong with our plan."

Hebert and his co-owners managed to hang on to the plan for a couple of years. In the winter, they occasionally rented the theater to a play or a poetry reading, but for the most part the space was unused. Rent became an issue.

"I started thinking, 'Here I am, we have this theater, we have to pay the rent and how can we do that?'" Hebert said. "There's all kinds of movies that don't get to Juneau that are good movies. Let's start showing some of those."

Lining up the films

There's no shortage of interesting films being made. And it's not hard to track down those film's distributors on the Internet.

What's sometimes difficult, especially in a market the size of Juneau, is winning the trust of distributors, both large and small.

Then there's the biggest question of all: Will people even show up?

Hebert reads the New York Times and movie Web sites like Rotten Tomatoes for movie ideas. Occasionally, he'll hear a good review on National Public Radio and decide to pursue the film. Sometimes, as in the case of "Winged Migration," a movie is recommended by a customer. That film, a documentary about birds, did well. Others don't pan out.

"Sometimes somebody will mention a film, and I can see that that person and two or three other people will be in the audience," Hebert said. "I have to say, 'I'm sorry, but you're going to have to get this for your videoplayer.' After the time I spend lining it up, paying $150 to $200 to ship it up here and a salary for the projectionist, it's not worth it, unless we have some opportunity of getting a decent-sized audience in here."

Hebert looks at the Internet Movie Database,, to find out a film's distributor. Many want to establish some sort of relationship with a theater before they send out a print worth $1,000 to $1,500. They require paperwork, references and bank information.

Smaller distributors tend to be shoestring operations that are happy to find a theater that wants to show their film. But many of them still require an deposit of $200 to $300 to reserve a film.

"I've got these movies that are reserved a month or two in advance," Hebert said. "When you don't have a big cash flow, that's a lot of money that you may be able to use for a lot of things."

Larger distributors, such as Miramax and Fox Searchlight, usually don't charge. Sony Classics used to, before they established a relationship with the Nickelodeon.

With some big-time distributors, it's difficult to talk to a real person. Juneau, because of its small market, is not a priority.

"When the movies are right out of the cooker, they'll call back and say, 'You'll have to wait another month until the major markets are done,'" Hebert said. "They only have so many prints, and they're going to play them where they can make the most money. If the movies start making more, they'll make more prints. They'll watch and adjust, to keep their income higher than the expenses."

Distributors usually ask for 35 percent of the gross. Lions Gate wanted 55 percent for "Fahrenheit 9/11." That's the most Hebert has been asked to pay.

"I accepted that," he said. "I would have played it every day and pre-booked it and sold tickets in advance."

Filling the seats

Most distributors don't send out advance "screener" copies of their films, so Hebert doesn't see most of his films before they play. He has to rely on critics and word of mouth. It's a crapshoot whether people will show up.

"Everyone wants to watch a movie that's won an Oscar, but obviously, there aren't a lot of films that have done that," he said. "This movie that we're showing right now ('Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...And Spring') is a good film. I like to show movies that touch people's hearts and make them think about things. Maybe give them more information. But some people are going to love it, and some people aren't going to like it that much."

As it turned out, the film attracted 55 people total for its Friday showings (7 and 9 p.m.) That was far better than the previous week, when "The Saddest Music In the World," a movie that was as equally praised in the press, drew 20 people on Friday night.

Four or five times since 2002, a Nickelodeon movie has attracted just two people.

"I wonder what the hell I'm doing here," Hebert said of those nights.

"There's been a lot of movies that didn't do that well," he said. "Some of them are, frankly, not that great. I don't know a lot of the time until it's too late. After the first night, you can tell when people come walking out of the theater whether you're going to do any business.

"We've had to say, 'Hey, this isn't going to cut it. Come back some other time, and we'll give you a free ticket,'" he said. "I can't afford to pay to show people movies. We have to have at least six or seven people in the audience to pay the projectionist, and that doesn't really count the wear and tear on the projector and all that stuff."

Hebert knows there are a few different niche audiences that will turn out to films. "Spring, Summer, Fall," a Korean film about a small monastery, did well because the theater gets a good turnout for Buddhist films. Gay and lesbian films attract a good audience. "Bend it Like Beckham" did very well, because it brought in soccer families. "The Triplettes of Belleville," an animated French film about bicycling mice, did well.

Sometimes, a film that seems like it would bring in a certain segment of the audience does poorly. "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a documentary about the skate scene in Santa Monica during the late 1970s and early 1980s, failed miserably.

"I put up ads at the skateboard place, and in the skateboard shop," Hebert said. "The only people that showed up for the movie were some people that were almost my age."

"City of God" had been getting good reviews when it played at the Nickelodeon during the summer of 2003. And the film enjoyed a resurgence later that year, when it received several Oscar nominations. But it fared poorly.

"It was pretty violent, and it turned a lot of people off who were our audience, people who want to see uplifting films rather than downers," Hebert said. "It was hard to watch, but we got it, and some of these movies will grow. We don't wait until the last minute. If I just read grosses and chose movies based on that, I'd probably be doing better. But I look at subject matter and films that are interesting and have received some critical acclaim."

Most of all, the theater specializes in films and documentaries that are left-leaning. Movies like Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and the Robert McNamara story "Fog of War" have done great, and reflect Hebert's own political stance.

"I'm kind of caught up in the whole political thing, with what's going in this country right now, and I like to do my bit as far as showing stuff that I think is true and important for people to know," he said. "Some people may think that I'm grinding my own ax, and it's true, I am. But that's what I believe, and having the theater is a way I can do that to some extent. Sometimes you get an opportunity to do something that's worthwhile, and that may make it a better town and a better society. If you get an opportunity to do that, it's pretty nice."

The future

Hebert spends 12 to 15 hours a week working on the theater. That's on top of family and his job at JAMHI. He calls distributors in the early morning, picks up films at the airport, assembles them into the reels, schedules projectionists, pays his employees, pays his bills. On Fridays, he's usually at the Nickelodeon from 5 to 11 p.m.

"I don't pay myself, and that's kind of where the rub is," Hebert said. "I spend more time than anybody on the place, and financially I get less out of it. I'd really like to get back to working on my own projects than all the time it takes to run a theater. I'm not planning on closing it down or anything like that, but I think there are other people who are willing to take it over and run it and show the same kind of films."

Hebert has been talking to at least one person, off and on, about taking over the theater. He would have to sit down with the other members of the limited-liability corporation to decide on a selling price. The space is rented, but a hypothetical price would include all the work that's gone into the theater and establishing it as a business.

"I could never do this unless I had a full-time job," Hebert said. "Whoever bought it would need to still keep a regular job or be independently wealthy. Or you'd have to deal with the projector yourself and not have anybody working for you. You'd probably still need a half-time job and your health insurance.

"If there were some younger person who loved movies, and who has some culture and is aware of that stuff, they would probably bring in movies that would do really well for audiences I don't even know about," he said. "They could do a bunch of innovative things that would make it a better business."

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