Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Walla Walla Sees Increase in Indie Movies

How hard is it to bring independent movies into theaters? When I first came to Whitman College, I was disappointed at the lack of indie movies at the local theater. In fact, I don’t remember seeing non-blockbuster movies my first year. Recently, however, I’ve noticed an increase in “lesser known” movies (or LK movies as the owner of our Walla Walla theater, Ray Hallett, calls them). It’s gone from none to one or two LK movies showing in the theater each week. BRAVO, Walla Walla!

Personally, I love seeing these eclectic movies in theaters. But why can’t we have more at our local college homefront?

“Some people think that we bring in movies we like and pass on movies we don’t like,” said Hallett. “The reality is we play the movies the public will pay to see. We have to achieve a certain dollar return on every movie every week or it goes out the door. That’s economics.”

Okay, that’s fair –– I always forgot that the movie industry is a business. According to Mr. Hallet’s math, he has roughly 50,000 potential customers, but how does this figure after taking out people’s preferences in movies?

“In the market, then, we have 10,000 potential customers for that movie,” said Hallett. “If a film will be played only one week, that number is cut by 80 percent for schedule conflicts, exams, soccer practice, family vacations, etc.”

As a math major, these statistics started to peak my interest. A movie like “Catching Fire” is going to be a guaranteed success at the box office as we saw with the movie making just over $158 million dollars in its opening weekend alone (sixth-highest opening of all time). But how big of an audience will an LK movie have? Surely 50,000 people won’t see “12 Years a Slave.”

“The challenge for LK films is they usually are of interest to one to two percent of the population … If that is cut by a similar 80 percent, there are only 100 to 200 patrons,” said Hallett.

A few weeks ago, I shared the theater with an older couple seeing the incredibly cute and charming movie, “Enough Said,” starring Julia Louis Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in a comedy about two adults falling in love. Three people definitely won’t pay the overhead of the theater.

Even bigger cities have attendance problems at indie theaters. In my hometown of Tacoma, Wash., The Grand Cinema (the similar name is a coincidence) shows only LK movies. How can a theater that only plays movies that attract maybe one to two percent of the population survive? According to Philip Cowan, executive director of The Grand Cinema, the theater still has to worry about the attendance-to-cost ratio.

“[The] cost to get a film is the same to us as it would be to someone in Walla Walla,” said Cowan. “If more people attend here, or in any big city, it just makes those small films more viable than it would in a smaller market … or anywhere with a smaller attendance.”

Cowan also attributes the financial viability of LK films to the number of screens in the theaters.

“The more screens you have, the more you can afford to do a smaller film or two,” said Cowan.

Lack of attendance at The Grand in Tacoma was a huge issue last year when they were forced to move to digital projectors. If theaters wanted to continue playing movies, they had to get entirely new equipment, and it was expensive. The LK viewers in Tacoma rallied and had a huge fundraising campaign to be able to afford the new digital projectors. Luckily the theater found support and is still with us today.

Unlike Mr. Hallett’s estimate of roughly 50,000 potential customers, Mr. Cowan estimated the Tacoma theater’s yearly attendance of roughly 127,000  just in the past year. So if you want to broaden your viewing experience, maybe try a new flick instead of seeing “The Hunger Games” a third time. Why not try “12 Years a Slave,” “All is Lost” or “Dallas Buyers Club” (if they come)? So if you love movies just a fraction of the amount I do and you’re wondering what you can do to bring more of the obscure movies you are going to hear about at the Oscars every year, Mr. Hallett gave one piece of advice:

“The best way for more LK movies to play in Walla Walla is simple: increase attendance,” said Hallett.

I do believe that means I’ll be seeing more of you all at the theaters for these LK movies.

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