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Flick Chick 

Published August 14, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Part art? Here’s the most frequently asked question a film critic is likely to encounter in Burlington: “When are we getting that art house?” People who make that inquiry are referring to the two-screen venue that will be part of the Lake and College Street Redevelopment Project. The complex is scheduled to include shops, a restaurant, an inn, offices and cultural space — a black-box theater for plays and Cinema Paradiso for motion pictures.

“We’re fully permitted and ready to start,” reports Melinda Moulton, whose Main Street Landing Company is behind the ambitious urban design. “As soon as we sell our 35-room inn to an interested party — which could be this month — we’ll go into the ground. We hope to begin construction this October, which means it’ll probably be completed by October 2004.”

Moulton’s company plans to lease Paradiso, with 120 seats in each screening room, to Jeff Thompson of Burlington. “He is a great guy,” she says. “I love his ideas for the place.”

The 31-year-old IBM logistics technician is digging into his own pockets and wooing investors in order to raise the $300,000 he needs to make movie magic. “I have to pay for the equipment, the screen, the seating, all the start-up costs,” says Thompson. “I want high-back seats that lean back some, with four-inch cushions and arm rests that flip up. That way, couples can squoosh together a little bit. For families, flip up a few and you’ve got a couch.”

Family fare is also important to the Milton native’s vision for Cinema Paradiso, named after the 1989 Italian Oscar-winning film. “It would be great to have some movies that only cost $10 for an entire family. It’ll be an art house at some point. I won’t be showing first-run stuff. I don’t want to compete with Hoyts or Merrill’s,” Thompson explains, referring to the area’s two largest commercial exhibitors.

It was Hoyts that gave him the initial inspiration for his planned enterprise. When he went to see the re-release of the original Star Wars in 1997, Thompson was upset that Cinema 9 on Shelburne Road lacked the Digital Surround Sound available in other cities. He did some research on the funding and real estate that would be required to establish his own theater. Thompson even set up a table on the Church Street Marketplace to conduct a public survey, asking passersby to speculate on their ideal movie-going experiences.

Nothing much happened with Thompson’s dreams until a few years ago when he hooked up with Main Street Landing, which had proposed a mixed-use development along the waterfront side of Battery Street. The theater will be across the road from and just south of the Radisson Hotel.

Adamant about installing full digital capability, Thompson hopes Paradiso also can be “THX-certified” — a technological designation named for another futuristic George Lucas flick, THX 1138, which came out in 1971. “That certification involves everything from finely calibrated soundproofing to the size of the screen to the type of lens on the projector,” Thompson explains.

He and his brother Mike are going to build the ticket booth and concession stand. “Cinema Paradiso will be family-owned and operated,” vows Thompson, who intends to do all the booking himself. “I’ve made some connections with Sony Classics and Warner Bros., but I think art-house films will be tough. There’s never any rhyme or reason to which ones do well.”

His own recent favorites in this genre were discovered on the shelves of a video store: Children of Heaven is a 1999 Iranian drama about two poor children forced to share one pair of shoes. A Chef in Love, the tale of a French cook who ventures to Soviet Georgia in the 1920s, came out six years ago.

Without the publicity or TV trailers of a Hollywood blockbuster, independent and foreign-language selections can easily fall through the cracks. Thompson is considering a newsletter — perhaps like the informative publication put out by the Savoy in Montpelier — and a Web site. He’s also thinking about offering memberships.

Thompson has told the Vermont International Film Festival, which takes place every fall in venues throughout the Queen City, “that they can pretty much have the theater then.”

Repertory, or second-run, classics will figure prominently on the Cinema Paradiso schedule, Thompson says. “I might even do a Star Wars marathon.”

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