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More than just movies: KC's indie cinemas transform the film experience

Man stands next to vintage movie posters. Jerry Harrington, pictured here in the lobby of his theater, has owned the Tivoli in Westport for 30 years. (photo by Caitlin Cress/Hale Center for Journalism)
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Any Kansas Citian interested in independent films knows what it’s like to wait for a movie with a limited release to reach the Midwest. Recently, both “The Skeleton Twins” and “Obvious Child” — small movies with with former SNL comedians taking a stab at drama — first opened in KC at Tivoli Cinemas in the Westport neighborhood of KCMO.

Jerry Harrington has owned the Tivoli for 30 years. His movie theater is a cultural institution in Kansas City, he said: it shows art house and independent movies, foreign films, recorded fine art performances and more.

There are lots of options other than the Tivoli for independent filmgoers in KC. Spread across the metro area are around a dozen independent theaters, many of which are both struggling to bring in customers and change the movie-going experience. In addition to competing with each other, they’re also competing with the big chains: The convenience of a megaplex’s multiple showtimes is often hard to pass up.

In the time Harrington has owned the Tivoli, the movie industry has changed drastically: There are more movies, more interest in independent films, more access to viewing movies at home and, because of Twitter and sites like Rotten Tomatoes, more pre-judging of movies than ever before.

But, according to Harrington, more isn’t better.

“The biggest problem I see in my industry is the flood of content,” he said. “There’s too many movies being released. It sort of waters it down… and really, truthfully, most of them, a lot of the movies being released are crap. Absolute crap.”

The theme of “more” continues with expenses: Ticket prices have skyrocketed, as have prices at the concession stands. Harrington hasn’t raised his ticket prices since 2008, but that doesn’t mean his operating costs haven’t increased.

“The biggest problem I see in my industry is the flood of content. There’s too many movies being released. It sort of waters it down… and really, truthfully, most of them, a lot of the movies being released are crap. Absolute crap.”– Jerry Harrington, Tivoli Cinemas

Last year, Harrington ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to convert two of the theater’s three screens from 35-mm film to digital projectors. He converted one theater — at a $70,000 cost — through a personal loan.

“Digital costs a hell of a lot more,” he said. “When I bought a 35-mm projector, it was going to last forever. Maybe you’d have to replace parts, but if you treated it right, it would last 50 years. (Digital projectors) last five.”

Harrington compared the projectors to computers: brand-new technology quickly becomes obsolete and needs to be replaced. Upkeep costs are also more expensive. Bulbs are delicate, can burn out in 500–1,000 hours and cost $500 to replace.

But even with the increased cost, converting to digital is all but mandatory in a movie business where 35-mm prints are rarely available. Movies are now sent to theaters on hard drives.

“I was as blunt as I could be,” Harrington said. “We either do this (convert), or we go out of business.”

In 42 days, the Kickstarter raised $136,393, exceeding its $130,000 goal.

“People really supported,” Harrington said. “It was incredible how quickly, how eagerly, how happily people gave money to this Kickstarter.”

Regardless of this community support, Harrington’s business isn’t out of its tight spot financially. He said Kansas Citians are excited to see more cultural options coming to the community — he cites the improved symphony and excellent live theater options, for example — but he isn’t sure that people are willing to actually buy tickets to support this cultural expansion.

Other local theaters, but not the Tivoli, have made menu and seating changes — offering lounge chairs, alcoholic beverages and expanded food options — to appeal to movie-goers who have more options than ever before.

A variety of on-demand options, like Netflix, iTunes and Hulu Plus, make it often more convenient — and sometimes cheaper — to watch a movie at home, where the couch is comfy and the snacks only a walk to the fridge away.

“The business is in utter transition,” Harrington said. “Where it’s going to end? I don’t know. Do we sell liquor? Do we sell food? Do we put in beds?

“We’re all just kind of eking out a living now,” he said. “It’s not like we’re making lots of money. If I break even in the year, I feel like I’m ahead of the game.”

The marquee of the Glenwood Arts theater, part of the Fine Arts Theatre Group, is one of the most recognizable signs in Kansas City. (photo by Caitlin Cress/Hale Center for Journalism)

The marquee of the Glenwood Arts theater, part of the Fine Arts Theatre Group, is one of the most recognizable signs in Kansas City. (photo by Caitlin Cress/Hale Center for Journalism)

Alternatives to corporate movie-going

Kansas City is home to plenty of independent movie theaters like the Tivoli: The Screenland Theatres group has three locations on the Missouri side (including the soon-to-open Screenland Crossroads) and the Fine Arts Theatre Group has four locations in Kansas. Standees, a theater and restaurant combination, operates independently in Prairie Village, and the Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet in the Power & Light district is an independent offshoot of the Drafthouse flagship in Austin.

Kansas City is also home to three AMC locations — and AMC’s corporate headquarters — two Cinemarks and five Dickinsons, including the Extreme Screen at Union Station in KCMO.

Adam Roberts, co-owner and operator of Screenland Crossroads and Armour, said these theaters are hard to beat.

“It’s far more convenient to go to an AMC or a Cinemark,” he said. “That’s kind of their purpose, to be the convenient theater. You’re going to have the same type of experience every time.”

Roberts said he understands the appeal of that predictability. He grew up going to movies almost exclusively at megaplexes, but said “it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted.”

From the first step inside Screenland’s Armour location, it’s apparent that this theater is a little different. A full bar is situated to the right of the front door, and a row of old-school arcade games line the wall to the left. Inside the two theaters, the first couple of rows are old, cozy couches. It all smells faintly of beer (but in a pleasant way). It’s easy to see how this theater reflects the theater Roberts had always dreamed of.

However, special events, not atmosphere, are the element that really sets Screenland Armour apart.

This month, the theater is hosting Shocktoberfest. A month of horror movies, which included premiere parties for AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “American Horror Story,” will culminate Halloween week with a visit from Eduardo Sanchez, the director of “The Blair Witch Project.” His new film, “Exist,” will play in a double feature with “Blair Witch” on Oct. 29.

Armour hosted Arts & Crafts Beer Festival in August: two evenings of independent films, including locally produced short films, beer tastings, Kansas City bands and local art. Both nights of the event packed the small theater lobby and the upstairs event space.

Roberts said that he can’t count on that kind of packed theater every weekend. He attributes a lot of that to location.

Location, location, location

Screenland Armour is located north of the Missouri River, at 408 Armour Rd. in North KC. Roberts said he thinks movie-goers who live in Midtown are more likely to drive to the Cinemark Plaza then make the 10-minute drive to Armour.

“I live in Westport, and it takes nine minutes (to get to work),” he said. “In all actuality, if you live in the Crossroads, it makes more sense to drive to us than it does to drive to the Plaza. Just parking alone will be easier.”

Roberts pointed to the lack of notable restaurants in the neighborhood, which he said makes it harder to plan a date night around the Armour location.

“We’ve kind of conceded that the location… it’s difficult,” he said. “If they’re not going to come in and drink beer and play arcade games and see a movie,  then it must be that they don’t want to drive nine minutes.”

“If they’re not going to come in and drink beer and play arcade games and see a movie,  then it must be that they don’t want to drive nine minutes.” – Adam Roberts, Screenlands Armour and Crossroads

Harrington also feels he loses business because of proximity. Tivoli Cinemas and Cinemark’s Palace on the Plaza are only about one mile apart.

He said Cinemark wins most of the battles when studios are choosing which theater will receive a bigger independent film.

“I try to get every big art film; I would love it,” he said. “It isn’t going to happen. It’s just a crapshoot. Some years you get ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ and some years you don’t.”

Roberts runs into this same problem at Screenland. He recently petitioned the independent studio A24 to show its recent release “Tusk.”

Screenland has shown all of A24’s other movies this year, Roberts said: “Life After Beth” and “Obvious Child” are examples. But A24 told Roberts they were going to send “Tusk” to AMC instead. AMC BarryWoods and Screenland Armour are ten miles apart, but they are both located north of the river.

“I know it’s a business, but, at some point, we expect a little bit of loyalty,” Roberts said. “We show the movies that no one else wants, and then we have a title that people do want and we get overlooked.”

The fact is, unfortunately, that AMC will simply gross more with “Tusk” than Screenland would, Roberts said. Since Armour has only two screens, they’ll only play a movie for one or two weeks.

“AMC, they have 24 screens, so it doesn’t matter if the movie isn’t performing that well, they can hold it for five or six weeks if there’s nothing else out,” Roberts said. “So their grosses will be bigger than us no matter what on the smaller movies.”

This glass wall at Standees in Prairie Village is made of soundproof glass: The restaurant patrons and moviegoers can see, but not hear, each other. (photo by Caitlin Cress/Hale Center for Journalism)

This glass wall at Standees in Prairie Village is made of soundproof glass: The restaurant patrons and moviegoers can see, but not hear, each other. (photo by Caitlin Cress/Hale Center for Journalism)

More than popcorn and candy

Standees – the Entertaining Eatery in Prairie Village, Kansas, is also contending with a location outside the city center. This theater, though, works well with its location. Justin Scott, Standees’ chief marketing officer, said they aim to appeal to customers in their 30s and 40s on “adult date night.” The suburb of Prairie Village seems to be a perfect location for this demographic.

Standees offers both a full-service restaurant and three small movie auditoriums for an all-in-one experience. Scott said the business depends on food and drink sales, not ticket sales.

“We’re a restaurant first and a theater second,” he said. “Three small theaters do not drive the business. The restaurant drives the business.”

Standees offers several features to highlight this difference from the average theater: movie times are plainly visible from most restaurant tables. Diners can add movie tickets, including picking their reserved seats, to their meal tabs. Tickets also can be purchased at a concierge counter and online.

“With reserve seating, you can linger at the table right up until that first preview, but still have the two center seats,” Scott said.

In addition to dining before the movie, small tables intended for appetizers or a few cocktails are attached to each chair in the auditoriums. The refreshments are self-service; no servers will interrupt the movie-watching experience, Scott said.

Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet also offers a full menu to moviegoers, minus the self-service aspect. If a guest is thirsty for another glass of wine an hour into “Gone Girl,” he or she can raise an order card, and a server will appear. The Drafthouse also offers bottomless popcorn, which servers will refill upon request.

While Standees is focused on a date-night atmosphere, the Drafthouse is interested in creating community, creative manager Ryan Davis said.

“A lot of movie theaters are afraid of video on demand and Netflix and the way things are going, and the trend is that people are staying home more and not going to the movie theater,” he said. “We want to give people a reason to get out of their basement and come and experience a film with a whole bunch of people.

“The whole point of Drafthouse is to make people want to go to the movies again,” he said.

Drafthouse shows everything from cult films to current blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but they make a point of creating an interactive experience for every guest.

Drafthouse is well-known for its “quote-alongs” and “sing-alongs.” Several times a year, the Drafthouse hosts the “Rocky Horror Sing Along with Fishnets and Floorshows,” where a live troupe performs scenes from the movie in front of the screen while 1975’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” plays. Guests are encouraged to shout the movie’s signature callbacks, like “How strange was it?,” which are displayed on the screen so everyone can participate.

This kind of audience participation doesn’t stop with “Rocky Horror.” Customers can say “as if!” with Cher from 1995’s “Clueless” or dance to Beyonce’s music videos.

“We try to recelebrate other films in the way that those ‘Rocky Horror’ fans have been for years,” Davis said.

“There’s a big local push to buying local goods, food and drinking local and all that. But there’s not support for independent, locally owned theaters for a reason that we can’t figure out.” – Adam Roberts, Screenlands Armour and Crossroads

Moving forward

Jerry Harrington is very conscious of how other KC theaters are striving to stand out. He is thinking about introducing beer and wine to his menu, but is reticent to get involved with all the red tape around liquor control.

One thing he is sure about, however, is that the theater market will have to attract young people in larger numbers to continue to exist in the same way.

He thinks video on demand, often seen as a young person’s game, is both helping and hurting his business. Last year’s action movie “Snowpiercer” was released to small theaters and on video on demand.

“If they had released that commercially, we’d never have gotten it. But because it was on VOD… we got it,” he said. “Thank you.”

Harrington said that young people understand that a movie with big action sequences like “Snowpiercer” should be seen on a big screen, so they saw it at the Tivoli.

“But, you know, a rom-com for their age group, they can watch on a computer screen. Who cares?” he said. “They get that (difference).”

While Harrington is hopeful young people will support independent movie theaters, he’s unsure just like everyone else.

Adam Roberts, of Screenland Theaters, isn’t sure what needs to change. But he hopes something does, especially with the new Screenland Crossroads location (1701 McGee St.) opening Nov. 7 — a First Friday.

The previous Screenland Crossroads wasn’t actually in the Crossroads. It was located at 1656 Washington St. and closed about 18 months ago. Roberts said the new location, opening just south of the KC Star, will take advantage of foot traffic in a constantly improving art neighborhood. He and his business partner Brent Miller hope the new Crossroads theater will draw in customers looking to patronize local businesses. Otherwise, this new location may shutter as well.

“There’s a big local push to buying local goods, food and drinking local and all that,” he said. “But there’s not support for independent, locally owned theaters for a reason that we can’t figure out.”

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