Small-town theaters face challenges of evolving movie industry

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Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu — which each report tens of millions of users — are challenging the status quo and the business model of Hollywood’s film industry.

But their impacts have the potential to hit closer to home, in the dwindling number of small-town theaters like those in Grand Ledge, Williamston and Charlotte.

“A lot of people ask if streaming is going to kill the theaters in general,” said Leann Owen, the owner of the Eaton Theatre in Charlotte. 

Owen and Chuck Pantera, owner of the Sun Theatre in Grand Ledge, say there is some effect from streaming services because some people will stay home and wait for a movie to be released digitally. But seeing a movie in the theater is a different kind of experience, they said. 

“Star Wars, you’re going to want to see that on the big screen,” Owen said. 

Sales numbers show that people do want to see big movie releases on the big screen. AMC, one of the largest movie theater chains in America reported $359 million in sales in 2018, more than any of the past eight years. 

Big movie releases like “Avengers,” “Star Wars” and “Frozen” can help keep people coming to the theaters. Theater-goers say there’s something about coming to a theater that’s different from sitting on the couch.

Grand Ledge residents and sisters Krista and Leah Pardee came to the Sun Theatre on a recent Monday night to see “Playing with Fire.” 

“They have pretty good movies, like right now it’s a comedy,” Krista Pardee said. 

In addition to the $4 ticket prices, the twins came with their cousin because of the variety.

“Netflix doesn’t have every movie,” Leah Pardee said. 

The thing all movie theaters have is the experience of going to the theater and enjoying a movie on the big screen.

“You’re never going to not enjoy that,” the Charlotte theater’s Owen said. 

One thing that small movie theaters like Eaton and the Sun have in common is the sense of community they help develop.

“Chuck does a really good job,” said Tim Cote of Grand Ledge, who was at the theater to see “Playing with Fire.”

Pantera said that he knows that school sports play draw traffic away from his theaterduring the fall season, but he is OK with that. 

“This town does what it is supposed to do. They go to the theater when they can and do the family stuff when they can,” said Pantera.

  • Every game in the arcade for 25 cents. Tons of classics like Ms. Pacman, Donkey Kong and Galaga. Yet another attraction that Eaton Theatre offers to the residents of Charlotte.
  • Virtual reality where you can spend some time before your movie, where you can shoot zombies, riding roller coasters and experience a cool escape room. You can spend as little as 15 minutes up to an hour playing various games.
  • The Halloween decorations stay up at the Eaton Theatre until after Thanksgiving. This helps Eaton Theatre stand out compared to bigger theaters.

Many small theaters shut down when movies switched from film to digital because they could not afford the switch, Owen said. 

Mike Doyle, a former Michigan State professor, said the switch happened in 2013, but theaters had been on the decline for quite some time. In his book “Box Office Open: Michigan Small Town Movie Theatres,” he says in 1947 there were 335 local movie theaters in Michigan. By 2000, that number only 70 remained.

Eaton Theatre was able to get donations to make the $50,000 conversion possible. 

“We got plenty of donations from our regulars to help us do that,” said Owen.

The Eaton Theatre has added a virtual reality game that guests can play, as well as other arcade games to entice the public to come inside.

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