Business of Life
Filling in the silver screen gaps
September 15, 2012By Jenny Callison
For the past 20 years, a small group of dedicated movie enthusiasts has kept the celluloid rolling at Wilmington’s Cinematique film series.
Almost every week, the series screens an independent, foreign or other noteworthy movie that – often – the megaplexes have overlooked. The series, held at Thalian Hall, enhances the area’s cultural offerings and produces a modest revenue stream for co-sponsors Thalian Hall and WHQR Public Radio.
There’s more to the Cinematique operation than threading the selected film onto a projector reel and flipping a switch, said Tony Rivenbark, executive director of Thalian Hall and a member of the Cinematique committee. The committee works through a booking agent, who deals with film distributors who give a movie house the right to show a particular film.
Each step in acquiring a movie and showing it involves cost, Rivenbark explained. “We pay the booking agent a flat rate and pay the distributor a percentage of ticket sales. We pay to ship the film here, and we pay the projectionist to show it,” he said. “We also pay the house manager and box office staff, and we pay for marketing and advertising.”
Big changes are coming to movie distribution. “By the end of 2013, 35-millimeter film will go the way of the dodo,” Rivenbark said. “Movies will be uploaded or sent by satellite.”
He estimated that upgrading Thalian’s equipment to become Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI)-compliant – a necessary step if Cinematique wants to show current films – will cost $75,000 to $100,000.
The switch to digital movie distribution will “radically change the way film is done in this country,” he said.
Going digital will be another milestone in the history of Cinematique, whose operations are guided by its seven-person committee. The results of the group’s efforts more than justify the investment, said committee member Mary Bradley, membership manager for WHQR.
“I love working with Thalian Hall,” she said. “We look at [Cinematique] as community engagement. It’s exciting to be able to show interesting but perhaps obscure movies that people like. And sometimes we get major films that, because the distribution process is so complex, just didn’t make it to Wilmington.”
As an example, Bradley cited the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was an enormous hit for Cinematique. “It sold out so fast that we extended the run,” she said. “It hit at the perfect time – every book club in town was reading it.”
A more recent success was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which had played briefly at the Regal Theatres but which Cinematique brought back to town, to larger crowds. Long lines at the ticket window prompted a fourth night’s showing.
The film series was born two decades ago from the complaints of several local cinephiles, recalled Anne Brennan, executive director of the Cameron Art Museum, who was then a curator at the museum’s forerunner, St. John’s Museum of Art.
“Hilda Godwin, Michael Titterton [then general manager of WHQR] and I regularly groused to one another that of 28 movie screens in town, there was nothing worth watching,” Brennan said. “We decided to investigate art house and alternative offerings going on elsewhere. Somehow I heard of Cinematique of Asheville, and called them.”
With help from the Asheville group, Brennan, Godwin and Titterton connected with film distributors and launched the Wilmington version of Cinematique, sponsored by St. John’s and WHQR. A state grant paid for projectors.
“We secured the now-defunct Cinema 6, located on College Road behind what is now OLLI,” Brennan said. “We put together a film review committee and started making selections. WHQR handled the money.”
The young series had its ups and downs. The museum pulled out as a sponsor, leaving the public radio station managing most aspects of Cinematique’s operations. Then Thalian Hall stepped in as both a venue and a sponsor, a development Brennan termed “a bright and happy day.” There were some films that drew disappointingly small crowds; others that were surprising successes.
“On many, many occasions, it would have been much easier to let Cinematique die,” Brennan said. “We struggled with films not showing up and poor quality prints. When we presented Priest in 1994, the parking lot was full of hostile picketers. But then, folks driving all the way from Myrtle Beach to see The English Patient to a packed house caused us to realize that things weren’t so bad after all.”
In the late 1990s, Rivenbark stepped forward to purchase better quality projectors. And the auditorium’s sound system was upgraded as part of Thalian Hall’s restoration in 2010.
The looming DCI conversion will further improve audience experience of Cinematique offerings, Rivenbark said.
One of the founders, Godwin, remains on Cinematique’s committee. In addition to her, Bradley and Rivenbark, committee members are Todd Berliner, member of University of North Carolina Wilmington’s film faculty; Dan Brawley, director of the Cucalorus film festival; Michelle Crouch, teaching assistant in UNCW’s film department; and Paula Haller, a Wilmington-based documentary filmmaker.
Bradley said that committee members scour The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly to learn about films that might appeal to Cinematique’s mostly-middle-age-and-older audience.
They also check out what’s being screened at film festivals and at other independent movie houses.
“We look for things that are well reviewed and have some buzz and those we think will appeal to our audience and will most likely not show anywhere else in this area,” Bradley said. “We sometimes get major films that have shown locally but which were not well promoted, so lots of people missed seeing them.”
Thanks to the thriving film community in Wilmington, Cinematique is not the only indie screen in town. TheatreNOW shows a different movie each week as part of its programming, and UNCW offers occasional film series, such as its upcoming selection of movies presented by the university’s Spanish Club.