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Single-screen struggle

Vintage cinemas strive to survive in the multiplex world

Multiplexes are spread from coast to coast, but dotted across the country are a few plucky operators of single screen theaters.

In a cutthroat exhibition climate, these theaters are looking to become centerpieces for revitalized downtowns, and doing everything they can to survive.

In L.A.’s Westwood Village, once the hub of the city’s moviegoing, single-screen theaters have been vanishing with two closing in the last year. Mann Theaters has said it won’t renew the leases on The Village and the Bruin.

But four hundred miles away, the city of Davis near Sacramento has moved to keep the 88-year-old Varsity Theater open, hoping that making it a double instead of a single will help keep the town’s centerpiece alive.

The city is spending nearly $1 million to fund the addition of a second screen with 100 seats next month, and adding digital projection. Operators of single-screen theaters are trying everything they can to keep their theaters alive — asking for support from city coffers, adding coffeehouses and restaurants, and switching between live events and film programming, to name a few.

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The city support comes as a relief to Varsity leaseholders Jon Fenske and Sinisa Novakovic, who’ve operated the streamline moderne 333-seat facility as an arthouse for the past three and a half years in the university town.

“We just can’t compete with the 11 screens that Regal has in this town — not with one screen, anyhow,” Fenske admits. “We’ve got the right demographic, particularly with the university here, but the problem is that we have to commit to films four and five weeks out. So we’ve wound up losing some arthouse films that people kind of expected us to have, like ‘Little Miss Sunshine.'”

With just one screen, Fenske explains, the Varsity’s relationship with distributors has been particularly tricky.

“We did very well with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ earlier this year but we had to keep it running for three months because the our weekends were still above $3,000,” he recalls. “The problem is that you wind up not being able to run other films and that makes it difficult to get other films you want down the line.”

With the installation of the second screen in the space behind the first screen, Fenske believes the Varsity’s will be able to book films like “Precious” and “Broken Embraces” at the same time — and make enough to cover the lease payments.

“This is the only way we’ll be able to survive as a single screen venue,” he adds. “It’s just too tough these days.”

Two decades ago, the Varsity was close to turning off the projector forever when the city council gave its owner permission to open a pair of multiplexes and redevelop the site as office buildings. But the city’s mayor persuaded the council to save the Varsity from demolition by turning it into a performing arts space.

Fifteen years later, Fesnke was attending a Jackie Green concert at the theater and wondered if maybe it could work as a movie theater again.

Novakovic, who also operates a coffeehouse in the neighborhood, and Fenske, who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, persauded the city that they could make a moviehouse work.

“This kind of partnership is what forward-looking cities are doing,” Novakovic asserts. “Having an arthouse in the downtown drives foot traffic.”

There are 1,447 single-screen locations in the U.S. today, down from 1,629 in 2004. Patrick Corcoran, director of research for the National Assn. of Theater Owners, said no exhibitors are opening new single screen locations.

The Varsity also plans to occasionally program mainstream films, now that it has digital projection. It’s already booked “Shrek Forever” for next summer.

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