City Lights and the power of independent theaters

City Lights Cinemas, 1930 Highway 101 in Florence, is the only movie theater in the Siuslaw region. Besides big Hollywood films, it also shows documentaries and art films in an effort to appeal to the diverse tastes of Florence’s movie goers.

How local cinemas create empathy and understanding in small communities

April 27, 2019 — “The thing that struck me was how much this was truly an event for people,” Mister Ooh-La-La said. “For most movies, even some of the big Star Wars flicks, aside from the most ardent fans, people are pretty casual about their plans, waiting until the last minute to procure tickets. This time, nearly all of the tickets for the opening show were presales, people came early to secure their seats, it was more akin to parents moving their kids into their college dorms or doing their taxes. They weren’t leaving any detail up to chance.”

Ooh-La-La is the manager of City Lights Cinemas, a four-screen independent movie theater located in Florence. It was the Thursday night preview of “Avengers: Endgame,” the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film has already broken the record for Thursday night previews, raking in an estimated $60 million. It’s expected to be the biggest weekend opening of all time.

The crowds packed the theater early to ensure they had the best seats. One of the audience members was dressed as Captain America.

“I thanked him for his service,” said Dan Okonski. He was so excited about the film, that he and his fiancée texted a picture of their tickets to all their friends hours before the movie started.

Captain America told Okonski that he hoped he survived “Endgame” so he could get another movie. There had been speculation for months on which Avengers were going to live or die in this final installment of the original Avengers franchise.

“I had a lot of fun talking to random people before it started, asking them who they thought was going to die.”

As the first scene ended, the audience gasped with shock.

“It started off like the movie ‘Psycho,’” Okonski said. Some people behind him started to talk. “The girl next to us yelled ‘Shut the hell up!’ very early in the movie. Tomfoolery wasn’t going to be allowed.”

While talking wasn’t allowed, cheers were, along with guffaws at the various in-jokes spread throughout the three-hour film. Of course, there were tears throughout the film, though it would take some major spoilers to say why.

After the final scene played out, the audience waited through the credits to see a traditional post-credit scene that every Marvel movie released has had. Except this time, there wasn’t one.

“Oh yeah, people were up in arms because they waited around for the end credits scene and there was none,” Okonski said. “Lots of groans there.”

But it was all in good fun. As the audience streamed out of the theater, one person yelled their summary of the evening: “That was awesome!”

Thursday was almost a record-breaking night for City Lights, which hadn’t seen such a sell-out crowd for a film since 2017’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which beat Avengers by a mere 20 tickets.

“The industry has been abuzz for weeks at the giant potential opening of the final Avengers in its current incarnation,” City Lights Cinemas co-owner Michael Falter said.

And the experience the audiences felt in “Avengers” is exactly what makes movie theaters special.

“Seeing a film in a theater reminds me of what we have in common, and at the end of the day, we have way more in common than how we differ,” said Susan Tive, who co-owns City Lights with Falter, her husband. “You may not feel like you have something in common with people. But if you have that visceral, communal experience, you can’t help but remember. You’re connected to these people, and they’re connected to you. We’re a community. The more we can remind ourselves of that, and create experience to make us aware of that as the overriding reality, the more hope there is as our society to hang together.”

Falter agreed, saying, “When I experience something with other people, we have empathy with each other. We all are sad at the same time, laugh at the same time. Empathy is such a critical word when it comes to film and how audiences share and experience things. I think for me, at least, empathy is what City Lights offers.”

But the success of “Avengers” also shows some troubling signs for the industry as a whole.

“We’re certainly grateful and excited anytime we can draw a crowd, and its boffo box office comes after weeks of films that haven’t drawn more than 50-100 people in a week’s worth of shows. To me, that’s a troubling sign for the industry. Studios must continue to make films that a wide range of audiences would like to see — not only superhero movies,” Falter said. “People love to see good movies on big screens and get out of the house, and we rely on studios to deliver a wide variety of (preferably) good to great films.”

Falter and Tive spoke about the issues facing small town theaters. From the threat from streaming services such as Netflix, to the problems with booking genre films, there are multiple landmines when it comes to surviving the difficult world of the theater business. But to Falter and Tive, having a working movie theater in a small town is vital to a community, as it promotes empathy, discussion and breaking down barriers in an increasingly partisan world.

‘Netflix has a lot of money’

“It used to be that Netflix would kill the video store because they’re a better way of renting a DVD,” Falter said. “We all believed in the theater business that there’s no replacing a big screen in a community.”

Netflix and streaming services did kill off the video stores. Only one Blockbuster remains in the entire world, located in Bend, Ore. Florence’s own 321-Video shuttered its doors in 2015.

Theater owners were also getting nervous as ticket sales began to decline, so they started going for gimmicks such as 3D and rumbling movie seats like D-Box to bring people into theaters. City Lights had 3D for a few years.

“For the first couple of years, it was quite popular,” Falter said. “But they overused that gimmick. It’s not desirable for most films to have that gimmicky kind of aspect.”

“I don’t think any of that has panned out the way the industry thought it would,” Tive said. “3D kind of failed and didn’t change the industry the way people thought it would.”

Panic began to set in in 2017, which saw the lowest attendance since 1992. But then 2018 saw some major hits.

“2018 was a banner year for the film industry in the modern era, achieving over $12 Billion in sales for the first time and selling 1,319,295,693 tickets versus 2017’s moribund 1,225,312,616,” Falter said. “Even art houses had a strong year with a raft of films, like ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’, ‘RBG,’ and ‘Free Solo’ — and that’s only the docs.”

Falter saw this as a sign that the theater industry wasn’t suffering — it was the quality of films.

“Usually when naysayers talk about the death of the film industry, it’s after a particularly bad run of box office films that haven’t met with box office expectations,” Falter said. “I would submit that’s not because people don’t want to see movies, it’s because people don’t want to see those movies. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to see those fortunes turn around. And it’s not going to be because of 3D. It’s going to turn around because people want to see Avengers and ‘Toy Story 4’ and smaller films with stars like Diane Keaton.”

Even though current ticket sales in 2019 are down 20 percent over 2018, films such as “Avengers” and the final installment of the “Star Wars” saga are thought to rebound the industry. But event films like those present a bigger problem for the industry overall. Hollywood is relying too much on the big-budget films, and foregoing the mid-budget films.

“We’re losing content right now,” Falter said.

In 2018, Netflix spent $13 billion on original content.

“Netflix has a lot of money,” Falter said. “What’s amazing to me is that they’re spending as much as every studio combined, which was $11 or $12 billions dollars. That hurts theater owners and general audiences. There are a lot of films that are being made and purchased that normally would have gone to theaters, and are now going directly to streaming services.”

The problem with Netflix isn’t that it’s creating big budget spectacles like “Avengers;” it most likely couldn’t compete in that realm. Instead, it is either creating or purchasing films that would normally fill up the majority of films shown theatrically — the smaller films that keep independent cinemas such as City Lights afloat.

“As the industry turns to the big budget spectacles only, and we lose that sort of mid-budget films that people love to go see the dramas, thrillers, the genre films,” Falter said. “We’re going to have a really long Netflix queue, and those films don’t end up being part of the national conversation, I find. When your content disappears at the bottom of your queue, we’re all busy people and it’s easy to lose sight of those films. Having the theatrical experience is not just about sitting in a darkened room with a stranger and watching it on a screen that’s bigger than your screen at home. It’s about seeing films that are in the national conversation. But without theaters in business, and without having that kind of opportunity, than I do believe that’s going to be a deficit for communities in the future if we can’t hang on to that theatrical experience.”

This is particularly relevant for City Lights. Streaming services are taking away the type of films that Florence residents like the most.

Netflix has made recent strides in releasing film content into theaters, particularly what it believes will be award winners. Last year, it released the film “Roma” so that it could be considered for Academy Award nominations.

“Once Netflix decided to put ‘Roma’ up for an Oscar, that created a perception that Netflix films were like any other film out there in the theatrical universe, and it didn’t need to play by the rules of other theatrical films,” Falter said. “And that’s the part that really upsets me. We’ve had a system in place since the ’60s where studios are not able to control the exhibition.”

That system includes agreements that state films should have a theatrical window of 90 days before being released to home video or streaming services. But Netflix is attempting to thwart that by only having its films play in theaters for just a fraction of that, and in some cases just days.

“‘Roma’ was for the one-week exclusive. After that, they opened it up to art house theaters. As an operator myself, I refused to play ‘Roma,’ even if people asked for it. To me, it’s endangering the future of theatrical.”

Why the 90-day window is important for small theaters like City Lights has to do with how the theaters get films from distributors, and the types of films that play in smaller communities.

‘Frustrating elements for this business’

Florence filmgoers have a specific type of film that they really want to see.

“Films like ‘The Intern’ and ‘Book Club,’ films you would think of as having a slightly older audience, those films have done as well as many of our superhero films,” Falter said. “That’s definitely outside the norm of national numbers.”

But as those types of films migrate to Netflix, City Lights loses the type of content that people want to see. And even if there’s a film that locals do generally like, sometimes the studios won’t allow City Lights to book them in a timely manner.

“There are tiers based on population,” Tive said. “Most films, small or large, get rolled out at the top tiers first, meaning New York and LA. And then they see how they’re doing. Then the next week they’ll release it to medium sized cities, and then eventually smaller towns. Except for Avengers and Star Wars, you kind of have to wait.”

“We wanted to play ‘Green Book’ when it first came out,” Falter said, pointing out that there were multiple requests for it to be played at City Lights. “But the studio started with only 500 prints, which is a pretty small print run. It took weeks for us to finally get that film. And it was around the Oscars. Things get even more interesting around Oscar time, dealing with print counts. ‘Green Book’ was probably a good strategy, because they kept talking about that film for months and months, and it ultimately won the Oscar. That’s a good example of why studios care so much about where a film goes, how far it goes, how quickly.”

The risk for City Lights is that locals who can’t wait for a movie such as “Green Book” to finally make its way to Florence go to Eugene to see the film.

And sometimes studios flat out refuse to allow a movie to play in Florence.

“That’s one of the more frustrating elements for this business in Florence for us,” Falter said. “We thought that we wouldn’t have any competition, so we would be able to show whatever we want. But it’s really a matter of proving to distributors that we have an audience for that film.”

Falter brought up the genre of faith-based films.

“For instance, ‘Run the Race’ was a faith-based film we showed a few months ago,” he said. “We had a total of 31 people come the entire week. And that was three or four showtimes a day. Those are the type of comparables that distributors look at and decide whether or not to allow to show the film. Typically distributors look at grosses before they give a film to a certain theater.”

If nobody comes to see one faith-based film in Florence, distributors won’t bother to send future ones here.

Earlier this month, City Lights began receiving requests for the faith-based film “Unplanned.”

“‘Unplanned’ had a larger than expected opening, and nationally there’s been a lot of interest in the film,” Falter said.

Because of that, the distributor was willing to show the film in Florence. While it initially did well, with local church groups purchasing tickets at a group rate, the rest of theatrical run was small.

“The other 21 screenings never had more than a handful, and often no patrons,” Falter said. “Thus, there was no potential for a second week of business.”

But “Unplanned” was an R-rated faith-based film about abortion, which may have turned off many viewers.

“‘Breakthrough,’ which opens in Florence on May 3, is a less controversial film, but it appeals to the faith-based audience,” Falter said. “It’s based on a true story of a mother’s prayers and her son’s miraculous survival. It will be intriguing to watch. Will the fact that it has a more broad-based appeal work more effectively in Florence, even if nationally ‘Unplanned’ did much more business?”

The success of “Breakthrough” could help determine the future of faith-based films in Florence.

“We’re in a position right now where the community can help determine and tell us what niche films they’re interested in seeing,” Falter added.

Ultimately, that’s what will help smaller theaters such as City Lights survive — audiences saying what they want to see, and going to see them. And sometimes, seeing a movie that someone generally isn’t interested in can actually help a community come together.

‘Film is an empathy machine’

“I make a living out of watching documentaries for one of my other jobs,” Falter said. He helps choose movies for an annual documentary festival in Bellingham, Washington. “There’s just some films that I don’t think I’m going to be interested in, and I don’t really want to see that film.”

However, as the person in charge of picking the festival’s line up, Falter has to watch hundreds of submitted films to see which should be shown.

“At the end of two hours, I’ll be tear strewn and think how lucky I am that I got to see that film, and it shined a light on something I didn’t know anything about,” he said.

“People should try and see different films,” Tive added. “Just like trying different types of food, or when you go to see an art museum and you look at a variety of things. You don’t know what you’re going to like or don’t like until you expose yourself to it. It’s about people having access and a feeling of safety. There’s a place where you can try something new and different and it’s not going to be frightening or overwhelming.”

Falter brought the issue back to “Unplanned,” which was considered controversial when it was released nationally. People called for it to be boycotted, and even City Lights got a few complaints for showing it.

“I think it’s important for us to provoke ourselves,” he said. “The same week we showed ‘Unplanned,’ we also showed ‘Before the Flood,’ which is about climate change. I think that climate change is something that some people feel is politically loaded, but you can watch a film and not be ideological, with you going into your corner and me going in my corner. It’s something we can talk about. I think controversy, at its best, can inspire discussion. It can inspire examination. If people are open and interested in other points of view, then there are ways that we can talk to each other in this time of political and ideological difference. I think the natural human instinct is to talk to each other and try to understand each other.”

It’s the conversation after the film that’s the most important thing.

For example, Falter mentioned “Green Book,” which was heavily criticized upon release for not accurately portraying the events the film was based on. Many refused to see it based on that alone.

“‘Based on true events’ is one of the great lies of narrative film, and ‘Green Book’ was a fascinating example of that,” he said. “That film, and the controversy that it sparked, led to so much more discussion about race and about that period of time.”

Falter pointed to the many radio and newspaper articles about the controversy that came out after the film was released. If the film hadn’t been released, and the controversy hadn’t occurred, he most likely wouldn’t know anything about the actual story behind “Green Book.”

“For me, watching the film, and then hearing about it on the news, my takeaway is a much richer one than if I had just skipped the film. My wish is that we can use our skills to think critically about everything we see. I don’t believe that not having those conversations is the answer. I think we plod along in this human story, and we try to make corrections when necessary, and we try to talk to each other. And I think films inspire talking to each other more than not. it’s amazing how much you can learn through extended examinations that films produce. Film is an empathy machine.”

Whether it’s talking about the conclusion of a beloved superhero franchise, hot topic issues such as abortion and climate change, or the complexities of history and race relations, seeing a movie and talking about it afterward are a safe conduit to bring people together, according to Tive.

“It seems to me more important that people watch films in a theater in the physical presence of other human beings, whether they like it or not, or know them or not,” she said. “How isolated we are as a society. There’s so much division, and we’ve lost a sense of how to talk to one another. Film provides that safety to bring people together and talk to one another. And that’s something our society desperately needs.”

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