Now showing - movies in towns

Wrangell is playing first-runs, while Gustavus makes do with older releases

Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"Jaws," released in 1975, was the last picture show Wrangell residents saw in a theater in town.

"Our theater did close down after 'Jaws' showed. It's what everybody remembers," said Wrangell resident Marcy Garrison.

Last Friday, though, the 30-year hiatus of Wrangell's movie screenings ended.

Over the weekend, about 400 Wrangell residents showed up to watch "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" in six screenings at the town's 2004-built civic building, the Nolan Center.

The center plans to show new releases in its multi-purpose room - which can seat 175 people - on a weekly basis, said Garrison, the center's president.

"The whole town is really excited," Garrison added.

Next up in Wrangell: "Yours, Mine and Ours," a family comedy.

In what appears to be coincidence, a group of Gustavus volunteers also began screening movies for residents at their city's K-12 Chatham School about five weeks ago.

Unlike Wrangell, Gustavus never had a movie theater and can't charge a ticket price.

The Gustavus volunteers who started the local movie events do not buy screening rights for first-run Hollywood movies.

Instead they are licensed to show older releases, using a DVD and projector, to a public audience.

"It's first run for Gustavus," joked Sean Neilson, a Gustavus resident who helps advertise the local showings. The license to show the movies costs $275 per year, he said.

So far, Gustavus volunteers have screened "The Polar Express," "War of the Worlds" and one other movie that Neilson couldn't recall on Monday. Shows are planned about once every other week, he said.

There is one big thing that the new Gustavus and Wrangell movie screenings have in common - besides serving fresh popcorn. They are both not-for-profit.

Proceeds from Wrangell's movie ticket sales and concessions will be funneled to Wrangell's booster club to help pay for school athletic events.

"It's so expensive for our kids to go anywhere," Garrison said, noting the high cost of travel to tournaments in other Alaska towns.

In Gustavus, the main idea behind showing the movies is to provide a positive social outlet, said Neilson, a photographer who also runs the local drug and alcohol prevention program.

"Basically, we are trying to have social events ... and a lot of people would like to see a movie on a screen that is bigger than a TV," Neilson added.

That is also the way that Dorothea Mayes, a Seattle-based movie broker for the past 30 years, sees the movie business in small towns.

"Usually a movie theater is an asset to a small town. ... It's something for the young people to do," said Mayes, who runs the 1948-created United Theater Service in Seattle.

Until she was contacted by the Nolan Center, Mayes said she hadn't worked with an Alaska movie venture since the 1970s.

"We used to put the film on the barge. It got to the point where the film companies didn't like to tie up their prints in Alaska," Mayes said. "Obviously that's all changed. Everything is being flown, now."

It's a smart choice for the two towns to run their movie showings as nonprofits because it is more affordable for them than trying to run a commercial enterprise, according to Lisle Hebert, owner of Juneau's Gold Town Nickelodeon movie theater.

"Not every small town can play seven days a week," Mayes added. In recent years, many small towns have chosen, like Wrangell, to screen their movies in a multi-purpose building, she said.

"As long as you have a screen, a place to show it, and the equipment, I can buy a film for you," Mayes said.

Neilson calls the Gustavus movie screenings a "mild success," so far, with about 15 people showing up for each screening on a regular basis.

Gustavus is "actually a pretty socially active place in the wintertime," with potlucks and other town events exerting a big draw right now, Neilson added.

Garrison, of Wrangell, said she's hoping the Nolan Center will attract big weekend crowds. "I'm hoping that we do make a good amount of money for the booster club," she said. "But that's to be seen yet."

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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