By Kelly McLaughlin, OGT Director of Marketing & Development
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The famous Dickensian opening lines are tantamount to cliché, but at the same time vastly appropriate to the life of independent, arthouse movie theaters these days, as two dueling articles recently published in Variety and The Boston Globe attest.
The best of times because “in the age of the plush multiplex, when the big cinema thunderdomes are doing everything they can to create an ‘experience’ that will shake paying customers loose from their streaming devices…smaller theaters are concocting their own methods to lure us out of our cocoons….plenty of people still want to watch a movie in the company of other filmgoers, and not necessarily in a theater that feels like an indoor amusement park.” (“Reel news: The state’s independent movie houses are not just surviving, but thriving.” The Boston Globe March 6, 2019.)
The worst of times because “confronted with aging audiences, competition from streaming services and theater chains boasting recliner seats and other amenities, many [small, independent theaters] balance precariously on a knife edge between popping more popcorn and being forced to turn off the marquee lights.” (“Inside Indie Movie Theaters’ Battle to Survive.” Variety March 2019.)
The Friends of Greenbelt Theatre (FGT), the nonprofit organization that manages the Old Greenbelt Theatre, is no stranger to these highs and lows while making the movies magical for our audiences. Every spring, we feel the pinch of the end of Oscar season and the low attendance that strikes at about this time of year. At the same time, we know that our audiences (new and old and those who have yet to discover us) crave the experience that only we can deliver. We serve up so much more than popcorn here. We show the films that make you think; we show them in a caring community (our staff know many of our patron’s names and typical orders); and we end so many of our screenings with thoughtful Q&A sessions that let you unpack films with experts, friends, and others in the audience. That’s not something you get at the AMC down the street, or the new Regal up I-95.
But, despite the deep love our community has for our theater, we’re always balancing on that “knife edge.” Film exhibition is a tough business to be in today. With a single screen, one weekend of bad turnout can really set us back. We’re strategic, we cut costs, but to deliver the value we want to the community, we need a wider profit margin and we need to diversify our programming, far beyond what our single screen and current footprint can provide.
That’s why we’ve launched our Beyond the Screen initiative. Thanks to two generous benefactors and FGT’s board of directors, we secured the finances to move our operation next door to 125 Centerway to install a Pop-up cinema to weather the renovation of our current main auditorium. After our main auditorium re-opens, we’re going to keep the Pop-up open so that our audiences get a taste of what a two-screen theater can provide. In spring 2020, we’re going to renovate the space at 125 Centerway into a permanent, state-of-the-art Screening Room and a home for our Media Arts Literacy Lab.
What will this do for us?
- Enduring, long-term financial sustainability: OGT already overworks our screen, making more than twice what other single-screen arthouse cinemas bring in on average. However, we’re still operating on a razor-thin profit margin because of the staffing it takes to provide quality programming to the community. With a second screening area and a dedicated space for the media arts literacy lab we can show twice as many movies with the same size staff and offer fee-based classes, camps, and workshops that diversify our revenue. Two things that the Variety article says are saving other arthouse movie theaters across the country.
- Bring in more movies and sooner: A second screening space will allow us to increase the number of films shown at OGT by at least 50%, along with the ability to get new release films earlier in their runs. We can also increase the number of specialty events, series, and film festivals we offer (given we’ll have the space and revenue to do so).
- Enhance historic preservation in Greenbelt: Between displays on Greenbelt history curated by the Greenbelt Museum and exhibits on film history curated by FGT, we’ll have a home for Maryland history in the heart of Roosevelt Center, bringing in more tourism and more revenue for ourselves and the businesses of Roosevelt Center.
- More OGT Kids programming: Our new Media Arts Literacy Lab will be a dedicated space for educational opportunities for kids—from homeschooling programs, to field trips, to workshops and camps—we’ve got so much planned for the young people of our community.
We’re not the only single-screen cinema that’s decided one screen just isn’t enough, as Variety points out of another single-screen cinema in Rhode Island, “in order to remain competitive they need to expand beyond their tiny single-screen space.” Heck, some independent cinemas are turning their screening rooms into escape rooms and bowling alleys during the film industry’s slow period, just to make ends meet. That’s not the direction we want to go with OGT, but it does underscore the lengths to which independent cinemas are having to go to stay solvent.
Our Beyond the Screen Initiative is our chance to build an Old Greenbelt Theatre that is sustainable, that can ride out the vicissitudes of the film industry’s on- and off-season, that can grow and offer our community more, rather than just subsist. If you love what we’re doing, we invite you to be a part of taking our mission to the next level by joining our campaign.
We are delighted to announce that we have worked with two anonymous donors who together have pledged $50,000 to MATCH any gifts made to our “Beyond the Screen” campaign. In addition, Friends of Greenbelt Theatre has been awarded Community Investment Tax Credits (CITC) for this campaign. This means that if you donate $500 or more to this campaign, it will be matched dollar-for-dollar by our anonymous donors, doubling the value of your gift to $1,000. Once you receive your tax credit, your out-of-pocket contribution is only $250. In summary, that makes your $250 gift worth $1,000 to our “Beyond the Screen” campaign.
The Variety article states that “theaters themselves can become de facto community centers. At a time when viewers devote more attention to their smartphones or tablets or at home binging Netflix shows or searching the internet, movie theaters present a rare venue for people to gather and have a shared experience.” That’s already what you’ve come to expect from the Old Greenbelt Theatre, but we’re getting ready to take this to the next level. At OGT, you don’t just watch the movies, you experience them, you unpack them with friends and experts. And with our Media Arts Literacy Lab, you’ll be a part of film making and film history.
Kelly is the Director of Marketing and Development for the Old Greenbelt Theatre. Raised by a father who taught film production, Kelly has been in love with foreign, independent, and other niche film since she was a kid. As an undergraduate at Elon University and graduate student at Arizona State University, Kelly studied the use of film as a means of creating cultural dialogue, both in the U.S. and in Latin America. She’s been involved with the Friends of Greenbelt Theatre since the organization took over management in 2015, but only joined the staff in September 2018. When she isn’t at the theater, she’s always running…whether she’s chasing her toddler, training for her next 5k race, or heading off to the next activity her busy family has planned.