The Half Light: Small Films Outside the Big City

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I live in Carrboro, N.C., a town of roughly 20,000 people adjacent to Chapel Hill, the home of the University of North Carolina. Durham is 15 minutes away, where you’ll find Duke University and a remarkable urban renaissance. Drive 20 miles down I-40, and you hit Raleigh, the state capital and home city of a third major university, N.C. State. Taken as a whole, this area is known as the Research Triangle, a locus of the hospital and pharmaceutical industries, and one of the fastest-growing regions in the southeast. It attracts people locally, nationally and internationally, and the resilience of the medical and educational fields in a struggling economy has sustained the influx of non-natives. Did you wonder, in 2008, how North Carolina possibly went to Obama in the presidential election? The Triangle is the best answer. Between 2000 and 2009, according to U.S. News and World Report, the Raleigh-Durham-Cary metropolitan area experienced the most growth- 40 percent- of all metropolises with more than 1 million residents. Many of those came from the north, and the influx of a liberal, non-southern population turned North Carolina from dead red to a swing state; no small feat in the partisan era.

With that growth came a boom to local culture. The presence of the universities meant that each of the three cities already boasted a proud artistic tradition, but more people means more demand, and it became a viable spot for touring bands, traveling museum exhibits, pre-Broadway theater productions, and small movie theaters catering to independent, low-budget and foreign films.

In that final category, there are now four venues in the Triangle: The Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill, the Carolina Theatre in Durham and the Rialto and Colony Theatres in Raleigh. The Rialto and Colony are owned by the same group, but the others have different owners. Together, they have nine screens. As of June 21, here’s how those nine screens were put to use:

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: Chelsea, Rialto, Carolina – 3 screens
Hysteria: Chelsea, Carolina – 2 screens
The Intouchables: Colony, Chelsea – 2 screens
Bernie: Colony – 1 screen
Empty Screen: Carolina – 1 screen

If you’re scoring at home, that’s four films on eight screens. One of them, Hysteria, is a fluffy romantic comedy about a man who invented a vibrator for women in Victorian England. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is, to put it bluntly, marketed exclusively at senior citizens. That leaves The Intouchables and Bernie— one a foreign film and one a smaller, subversive American film, though it stars Jack Black—as the lone alternative film offerings in a metropolis of 1.7 million people.

(For full disclosure, the Colony also showed The Skinny one night that week, the Rialto shows The Rocky Horror Picture Show Fridays at midnight, and the Carolina Theatre has a Summer Classics series that happened to be dormant the week of June 21.)

Before moving to Carrboro in 2010, I spent five years in Brooklyn. New York City is paradise for film buffs, and I’d even put it above L.A. due to the proximity of theaters showing independent, foreign, and low-budget studio films. If you share my taste in movies, you can walk to five of the city’s best theaters in 20 minutes. Three of them are on Houston Street- the Film Forum, the Angelika, and the Sunshine- while two others (IFC Center, Cinema Village) are just a few blocks north. When you consider that almost all of the ‘alternative’ films gracing their screens open in both New York and Los Angeles, there’s rarely any lag time between the American release date and the film’s appearance in Manhattan.

But in smaller cities, like the Research Triangle, it’s never that easy. You’re lucky to have one small theater, and even when you do, the owners have to contend with economic realities that change how they screen the product. So while it would be easy for me to get annoyed at the local theaters for their lack of creativity, a quick look at the broader situation shows that the blame lies elsewhere. Here are the two primary root causes behind the lackluster offerings in smaller cities.

1. The Unreliable Young Audience
Why do you think Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is playing on all three screens in the Triangle? I spoke with each theater informally, and each one had extended Best Exotic past its expected end date. The reason was simple: by their standards, it’s doing extravagantly well. Why? Because it’s a movie geared toward senior citizens, and senior citizens come out to the movies.

One of the theater managers put it succinctly: “It’s full of old ladies, and they bring their husbands.” And that’s great, but the fact that this kind of success is rare for the small theaters is an indication of a bigger problem, which is that young people don’t come out to see smaller, artistic films. Even my anecdotal experience confirms this; whenever I see a film I’m excited about in a small theater, typically on a weekend night, the majority of the audience will be visibly old. And the topic of the film doesn’t seem to matter; it was like that for A Separation, an Iranian film (one of the few from that country, with respect to the censorship and political pressure filmmakers are up against, that I’ve enjoyed), it was like that for Ralph Fiennes’ adaptation of Coriolanus, it was like that for Alexander Payne’s The Descendants and it was like that for Ryan Gosling’s star vehicle Drive.

The issue of why young people aren’t seeing non-mainstream movies in greater numbers is hard to pinpoint, but books like Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” provide a compelling theory- as the American golden era of the ‘70s came to an end, the studio discovered how to make and market big budget films around the same time that the overwhelmed audience began to crave lighter fare. Films like Jaws and Star Wars were the natural result, and the American movie going experience changed forever.

If old people are the ones showing up on a weekly basis, can you blame any of the theatres for milking Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for all it’s worth? Operating a small theater outside a major city is a labor of love, and the profits are a fraction of what a mega-plex will take in. Within that reality, the owners have to maximize earnings where they can, and the lack of a young audience will force them to screen films like Best Exotic at the exclusion of other offerings.

2. The Tier System
This article was inspired by my desperate desire to see Moonrise Kingdom, the new film from my favorite director, Wes Anderson. It was released in New York and Los Angeles in late May, and set per-screen records for limited release films in those cities. Then it trickled outward over the next two weeks, to Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Atlanta. It eventually came to places like Charlotte and Richmond and Norfolk, only three hours away. But the Research Triangle is still in a lower tier, and the soonest Moonrise Kingdom becomes available here—in three theaters at the same time, judging by the websites—is June 29, five weeks after the release date.

I can’t say for sure that the reasons behind this are purely financial, but it stands to reason. If the Triangle audience had overwhelmed smaller theaters in the past, distributors would certainly have taken notice, and the area would have gone up at least one tier. But that hasn’t happened, and the result is a deserved form of third-class treatment.

Is there a solution to either problem? The unimpressive turnout among young people probably won’t be reversed any time soon. Our film-watching habits have been going in the opposite direction for 30 years, and at the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, I don’t see attention spans or artistic inclination experiencing a boom in the younger generations. But the tier problem does have a solution- growth. When you become a big city, you automatically have a larger audience to draw from, and part of that population will filter down to the small theaters.

The conundrum isn’t unlike the one North Carolina Democrats faced in 2008. America is no longer a place where you can change people’s habits or opinions, but it’s still possible to change a demographic. How do you turn a state blue? Forget hearts and minds; hope and pray that the blue comes from outside. It’s no different with film audiences. We aren’t getting any better, but we can always get bigger.

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