I don't much like writing about local movie theaters in this section. In these pages, we tend to concentrate on the "show" rather than the "business."
In part this is because I genuinely believe in the value of cultural criticism, and that although movies (as narrowly defined by light and sound projected on a wall in a darkened public hall) may be less important to us now than they have been in the past, they still serve an important role in our society. Fewer of us may go out to see them on a regular basis, but they remain touchstones and points of convergence, a kind of cultural binder. Enough of us see enough of them that they might supply us with a common store of images, a referential reservoir we might all draw on.
Another reason is because this newspaper has a business section with some fine writers. I hope you read Jack Weatherly's story about Matt Smith (the proprietor of the Little Rock art house Market Street Cinema) acquiring the 10-screen space in Little Rock's Riverdale Shopping Center that ran in the business section May 28.
The move is big news, with real repercussions for central Arkansas' cultural life. In a few days, we might have one of the best art house situations in the country on our hands. Area moviegoers will be presented with some exciting options.
Smith plans to move the Market Street Cinema operation -- consisting of foreign and independent films -- to Riverdale, where he's in the process of installing new Barco digital projectors and Dolby sound. While the theaters won't be as fully tricked out as some of the rooms at the Rave or the Regal, they will offer crisp, bright projection and clean sound, something not unlike the excellent Ron Robinson Theater opened by Central Arkansas Library System earlier this year.
Over the past six months, I've had a few conversations with Smith about his plans and I think he plans to devote five screens to the sort of product he has played at Market Street Cinema while playing more mainstream product in the other auditoriums. Last week he told me he planned to have four of the screens open today, and that one of the films he was planning to open was the Warner Bros. Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow.
Turns out, that was a little bit ambitious. Now it looks like the plans are to get at least some of the Riverdale screens open by Tuesday and all of the screens open by June 13 -- although it's likely the theater will still be undergoing renovations. When I talked to Smith a week ago, he was worried that he'd have to rope off some broken seats because he might not get the parts to repair them in time for the opening. He was concerned that his concession stands might not be completely ready.
I'm glad he's doing this. For 14 years, Market Street Cinema has brought to central Arkansas movies we wouldn't otherwise have had a chance to see. For probably a dozen of those years, Smith -- who owns other theaters in other markets -- operated the theater at a loss. Now, I think he may have a commercially viable theater on his hands.
Ideally, the Riverdale location will draw from the nearby Heights and Hillcrest neighborhoods, serving as a kind of neighborhood theater. While Riverdale lacks stadium seating, Smith hopes to bring the wine and beer license he had at Market Street over to the new theater (that probably won't be a problem -- there's a liquor store next door to the Riverdale space). He'll also serve food, aiming for "an Alamo Drafthouse-style experience" -- a reference to the Texas-based theater chain that's distinguished by its eclectic programming, food service and insistence on moviegoing etiquette.
And it certainly won't be less convenient for the majority of Market Street Cinema fans. Smith is considering matinees for children on summer mornings. He's intent on keeping all the Market Street Cinema special events -- such as Dave Elswick's classic movie series -- going. And he says if negotiations are successful, he might keep the Market Street location open as a dollar cinema.
I see it as a win-win, with this caveat: Movie screens are a zero sum game. A given market can only support so many screens. Smith's opening in Riverdale is going to have some effect on the local economic ecosystem, although I'm not prepared to guess what that will be.
On the other hand, it might not matter at all. Riverdale closed in December for a number of reasons, but the chief one may have been that the folks who were operating the theater were not prepared to make the necessary investment -- from $60,000 to $80,000 per screen -- to upgrade to digital equipment. With studios phasing out 35mm prints in favor of less expensive digital delivery systems, that meant it was increasingly difficult for Riverdale to find product to put on its screens.
Smith's Market Street Cinema was in the same boat; it also needed to upgrade to digital projection. But it just didn't make sense given the theater's declining attendance and deteriorating physical plant. For years, Market Street Cinema has made no economic sense whatsoever -- it stayed open only because Smith wanted to show these kind of movies. ("Because I want to see these kind of movies," he told me more than once.)
Now I know some have complained about bad picture and sound at Market Street Cinema. And Riverdale had some of the same issues. But the new equipment will cure most if not all of those problems.
I am aware of the nostalgia for 35mm film projection but the truth is, this is about the best outcome I could have imagined. Smith has always provided local filmmakers with a venue where they could show their films, and I don't think that will change. I could see Riverdale once again becoming an important venue for the Little Rock Film Festival. And it will continue to show movies that we wouldn't otherwise get in a market this size. I'm excited about the prospects of walking down to Riverdale (from my house, it's a pretty easy walk) and catching the latest Pedro Almodovar or Jim Jarmusch.
This could be the start of something really great.
MovieStyle on 06/06/2014
Print Headline: Market Street moves to Riverdale