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It’s A Cliffhanger For Movies At The Strand

by Eugene Driscoll | Dec 11, 2013 7:44 pm

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Posted to: Seymour

A local chapter of the Knights of Columbus is scheduled to meet Dec. 16 to discuss whether to continue showing movies at the Strand Theater.

The move comes a month after the Seymour Board of Selectmen unanimously voted to vacate the premises by Dec. 31.

The Knights — specifically, Knights of Columbus Aurora Council 53 — own the building, but the town rents and operates the movie theater, which employs four part-time workers.

The town wanted to end the lease because the movie screenings are running a $60,000 deficit over the last two-and-a-half years, according to Seymour First Selectman Kurt Miller.

“The town understands this will never be a highly profitable venture. If it broke even, that would be perfect. But the problem is that we’re putting all these resources out and there’s not a big turnout on Friday and Saturday nights,” Miler said.

The Strand shows second-run feature films, usually on the weekends. They screen movies at a discounted price (usually $5) after the movies have played across the country at multiplexes — including Entertainment Cinemas in Tri-Town Plaza.

Attendance has been shrinking during the weekend screenings, according to Miller and Judy Simpson, the chairperson of the town’s culture and arts commission.

The theater sometimes screens movies for crowds of less than 10 people, officials said.

“The Culture and Arts Commission gave us attendance sheets showing we’re screening movies for four people,” Miller said.

Save The Strand

But the Strand is an important symbol for Seymour residents. The theater is nestled on Main Street in a corner of the town’s quaint downtown business district.

The marquee was renovated to great fanfare last year. It’s the jewel of Main Street.

The bad news prompted a Facebook group to pop up Dec. 3 called “Save the Strand Theater.”

“Our Beloved Strand Theater is scheduled to be closed as of December 31, 2013. We are trying to stop this from happening,” the group’s description reads.

The page picked up an impressive 400 “likes” on Facebook in about two days.

Area residents past and present are lamenting the town’s decision to exit the movie screening business.

“Save the Strand! My first date was there,” one user posted.

As of Dec. 11, the “Save the Strand” Facebook page had more likes on Facebook than the actual “Strand Theater” Facebook page.

The Reports of Our Death . . .

But John Fanotto Jr., the Knights’ business agent, said the theater is not necessarily going dark.

The theater is still available for rentals — inquiries should be directed to Fanotto at 203-888-6507. Walnut Tree Hill Community Church rents the theater for Sunday religious services. That will continue, Fanotto said.

And the Knights of Columbus are researching whether it makes financial sense to keep showing movies — and what can be done to attract larger audiences.

Fanotto urged the hundreds of people who “liked” the Facebook group to buy a ticket and see a movie at the Strand.

“It’s one thing to ‘like’ something on Facebook, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into people in the seats,” Fanotto said.

For example, “Despicable Me 2,” a family film, made $366 million during its U.S. theatrical run earlier this year, according to the Internet Movie Database.

But just 17 people went to see it on a Friday night in September at the Strand. By that Monday, just 79 people watched “Despicable Me 2” at the Strand, generating about $790 in ticket sales.

Concession stand sales are also not doing enough volume to get the theater to break even every month, town officials said.

Miller pointed out the town doesn’t get to keep 100 percent of the ticket sales. A percentage goes back to the companies that distribute the movies. In addition, the Strand has to pay a company for permission to screen a given movie.

The First Selectman said the theater is also faced with a significant equipment upgrade, as all movie theaters move toward digital projection. Click here for more info on that expensive proposition.

Click here for an article from USA Today on the same issue.

Nevertheless, the Knights are seriously considering getting into the weekend box office business.

Fanotto pointed out his organization just purchased the projection equipment from the town. But a decision on movies hasn’t been made.

“It’s not as simple as just turning over a key,” Fanotto said. “There is a lot that goes into it, including employees and insurance. The Knights have to decide as a group and vote on it.”

Costs

In 2013, “Movies at the Strand” has been running deficits as high as $4,000 a month, town officials claim.

The town pays:

  • $1,250 a month in rent to the Knights
  • $800 a month in utilities
  • $2,000 a month in payroll
  • $570 a month on supplies
  • $1,000 a month to rent the movies to screen
  • $600 on concession items

That’s about $6,000 a month in expenses for Seymour.

Ticket and concession sales are not consistent, according to totals submitted from the town’s Culture and Arts Commission.

According to meeting minutes from the town’s Culture and Arts Commission the Strand sold $3,586 in tickets and concession sales in June.

  • It sold $2,955 in July.
  • It sold $6,786 in August.
  • It sold $4,056 in September.

“The town just isn’t in the position to continue like this anymore,” Miller said.

The Strand isn’t the only movie theater with an uncertain future.

The number of movie theaters has been declining across the nation. There were 7,151 theaters in the U.S. in 1995. There were 5,317 in 2012, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The number of actual movie screens has increased during that same time period, from roughly 27,000 screens to 39,000 screens. That represents the rise of the multiplex — which the Strand Theater is not.

While the Strand is lovely to look at and the idea of $5 movies is appealing, the underlying business model is in jeopardy.

Second-run, discount movie theaters face massive challenges in the marketplace.

Seeing a movie on a television, tablet or smart phone is easy with digital services such as Amazon, iTunes and Netflix. Every cable provider offers an “on demand” rental component. “Second-run” movies can be seen in the comfort of a person’s living room.

For roughly $10 a month, a consumer can stream older titles — or popular television shows such as “Sons of Anarchy” — on his or her television through Netflix. “Amazon Prime” also offers streaming video as part of an annual fee.

Art and independent films, once a staple of small movie theaters, routinely go straight to DVD or straight to digital services, bypassing movie theaters all together.

And now everybody and their brother buys big-screen televisions on Black Friday. And then there’s Red Box, where people can rent the latest DVDs outside their local supermarket.

Miller said given the fact local governments are being asked to do more with less, it’s risky to invest in a second-run movie theater, the type of which could be fading away.

The Valley Indy asked Miller about the theater’s symbolic nature to Seymour residents.

“It’s not like the Knights are going to tear down the marquee,” Miller said. “The theater is still available for special events and they are looking for a replacement.”

But those events won’t be organized or sponsored by the town’s Culture and Arts Commission, which recommended the Selectmen not renew the lease with the Knights.

Judy Simpson, chairperson of the town’s Culture and Arts Commission — a volunteer group — said members of her commission did all they could to keep movies at the Strand, but nothing worked.

The Strand was becoming an “albatross,” distracting the commission’s attention from an array of other events that are supported by Seymour residents, as demonstrated through heavy attendance.

“This was not an easy decision in any way,” she said.

Lease Agreement

Fanotto said the Knights are being cast as the bad guys because they asked the town for more money in rent — $1,700 a month up from $1,250 a month.

But Fanotto said the Knights had kept the rent flat for five years, even though property taxes on the building had increased each year. The Knights aren’t greedy landlords, they’re a Catholic charitable organization, Fanotto said. Any profits generated from the property goes toward the Knights’ many charitable missions.

The Knights asked Seymour for more money because the town was subletting the theater once a week to the Walnut Tree Hill Community Church for $500 a week, or $26,000 annually.

Fanotto said the rent increase request was negotiable, but the town never entered into negotiations. The Knights were actually more concerned with other items they wanted Seymour to agree to in a new lease, such as requiring the Strand marquee to read “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter” during the holidays — not “Happy Holidays.”

Miller said some negotiations did take place, but the town just couldn’t justify staying in the movie business.

“The rent increase was just the last straw. We just can’t do it anymore,” he said.

Regarding the $26,000 in rent the town receives a year from the church, Miller said that money goes toward the Strand renovation fund.

“We’ve been making improvements to a property we don’t even own,” Miller said.

Any money left in the renovation fund will likely be used to close the theater’s deficit, Miller said.

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