When 12 people show up for a Saturday-evening movie, what does that say about the future of art-house cinema? Nothing good, says Terrence Youk, owner of Montpelier’s Savoy Theater.
Of course, gorgeous weather like last weekend’s is always bad news for movie theaters. But at the Savoy, the low turnout reflects a pattern. On September 24, Youk sent out a press release headed “Drastic Cuts at the Savoy Theater.” He got quickly to the meat of the matter: “In a direct comparison of the ?rst nine months of 2012 to 2013, the Savoy has sold 3,900 fewer tickets with an overall $61,000 downturn for the entire business from last year.”
The result? Youk has laid off seven of his staff of 20, he tells Seven Days in a phone interview. He and employee Eric Reynolds now handle all the projection duties. Youk has considered and, for now, rejected the idea of screening movies just three days a week. And he’s cut business hours at the companion video-rental business, Downstairs Video.
“It was a hard decision,” Youk says. “Several of our projectionists had been working there well before I bought the theater.” Former owners Rick Winston and Andrea Serota opened the Savoy in 1980; Youk purchased the one-screen theater in 2009 and added a second screening room in the basement.
This is not the first time Youk has appealed to the community to keep the Savoy alive. In May 2012, he sent the theater’s membership a message lamenting a $12,000 shortfall and warning that the theater was “Too Culturally ‘Big’ to Fail.” That year, ticket sales rebounded and ended up reaching a record high, Youk says, thanks to summer successes such as Moonrise Kingdom and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
But 2013 has seen no such dramatic reversal. “We usually have about four hits a year. We’ve had no hits this year,” Youk says. The situation has left him “just scratching my head,” he adds. “I’ve talked to a film buyer, and she assures me we’re not alone. A lot of art houses are having the same kind of downturn.”
Youk thinks a combination of factors worked against the Savoy this past summer, from good weather to demographics: The older people in its core audience aren’t going out as much, while “younger folk are watching media on their phones.”
But there’s a broader institutional problem he finds particularly troubling, Youk writes in an editorial he drafted for Montpelier’s the Bridge. “Now that the six major studios have their digital pipeline laid in the vast network of multiplex theaters, the art-house contingency … [is] being excluded from film offerings that once were exclusively theirs. The upshot is that theaters like the Savoy are being locked out from independent films that typically have been most likely to be a hit for us.”
His example is Silver Linings Playbook, which went to the nearby Capitol Showplace instead of the Savoy. “Distributors seem to be sending out films to who’s got the most seats,” Youk says. “If it’s an Oscar hopeful, they’re shuttling it into the multiplex.”
That’s where moviegoers seem to be shuttling, too. Youk says he’s experiencing a disconnect: “When I run into people, they say, ‘You can’t close the Savoy; it’s an important part of Montpelier.’ And there’s the numbers we see every day … there’s nobody coming.”
Is time the problem? Money? Motivation? To test the waters, Youk plans an experiment called Quid Pro Tuesdays. Every Tuesday, he’ll let people watch a flick at the Savoy for free, “with the caveat that you pay us upon your exit whatever you think the movie was worth.”
“I think we’ve done everything that we can do to let people know what’s going on with the Savoy, and they have to make a choice,” Youk concludes. “People have to not just talk about how it’s a great place; they have to come support it and make it happen.”
For the week beginning on Friday, October 4, the Savoy Theater will play "GMO OMG," "Haute Cuisine" and "Populaire." It will screen Jay Craven’s "Northern Borders" on Monday, October 14, at 6:30 p.m.
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