When Kevin Spitzer started 21st and Union’s Central Cinema in 2005, there wasn’t a lot to do in the Central District.
“If we wanted to go out, we had to go somewhere else,” he said. “Our mission of opening a theater over here, besides the fact that we live down the street, is all about making more fun happen in the CD.”
With its dinner-and-a-movie set up and cult-film revival programming, Central Cinema’s mission is to be a part of the community, to deliver an experience beyond just a projector screen and felt seats, Spitzer said.
With the Landmark-owned Egyptian Theatre closing its doors Thursday night after the 9:40 PM screening — rumors of a last minute deal for a renewed lease are just rumors, building landlord Seattle Central tells us — area cinema owners are evaluating their business models and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t for an arthouse.
Northwest Film Forum executive director Lyall Bush echoed Spitzer’s statements. For NWFF, he said, the business is about more than just sharing the experience of film, it’s about cultivating a creative space for the community.
“Aside from the 200 films that we screen every year that we hold quarterly filmmaking classes,” he said. “We give away money to filmmakers. We’re a real 360 film arts center.”
“The entire world, starting two-three years ago, started to turn towards… digital cinema,” Bush says. “We kind of resisted it until we realized that in order to stay in the biz we had to convert.”
The campaign reached its goal, raising $51,685 dollars. Bush said this is proof that passion for local cinema is still alive.
“Independent cinema just in this region is strong,” he said. “The audience for it is strong.”
Why then, is Landmark leaving the Egyptian?
The Egyptian Theatre is the third Landmark venue to close in as many years — The University District’s Neptune Theatre has been re-opened as a music performance space, and the Metro is now operating under Sundance Cinemas.
Spitzer said he’s often been disappointed with the level of upkeep at Landmark venues, a few of which have not received major renovations in several years.
“I think Landmark is not trying as hard as they did for a lot of their places,” Spitzer said.
Though he insists he doesn’t have any inside scoop on the historic theater’s closure, Spitzer said he’s felt as a patron of cinema that the chain’s film selection has been rote in recent memory.
“(Their film selection is) not indicative of any excitement for anything coming out,” he said. “Not ‘we managed to score this one’ or ‘we saw this one at the festival, you have to come see it because it’s awesome’ — you haven’t been getting the sense of those things.”
Spitzer said the process behind choosing what films to show is an important opportunity for a theater to assert itself as a member of the community.
“You can’t just sit at a little room with a desk and think about it by yourself, you have to think about different things, feeling out other events at other places, getting a sense of the pulse,” he said. “(You have) to stay current, to have a feel for what people find interesting.”
With Netflix and HDTVs making home viewing increasingly accessible, Bush said that NWFF is grappling with the strategy involved with bringing a new generation into the theater.
“It seems that for us to bring out audiences in their 20s is a slightly different invitation… they want to see activity associated with the experience,” he said.
Whether that involves DJ nights, happy hours, or something NWFF hasn’t thought up yet, Bush said the goal is to host events that are “a little bit more socially based.”
“The question is: if a lot of people, including me, watch so much cinema on Netflix, what is the value of a theatre?” Bush said. “It’s the popcorn and that smell but also the sense of belonging to the larger world.”
“The purpose of having that image so large is that it is there for hundreds of people,” he added. “The human animal still wants that experience.”