Movie Column
"Going to the Movies"
by Bill Gallagher

Going to the movies just isn’t what it used to be, and fewer Americans are doing so each year.

Oh sure, box office grosses keep going up, but that’s only because tickets cost more than ever.

For many it’s become too easy to skip the whole theater thing. It’s not just that the cost of a ticket rises faster than the cost of a gallon of gas. There are also packed multiplexes, noisy crowds, being forced to watch commercials on the big screen, technical problems that occur at a movie’s climactic moment, and the obscenely high price of popcorn, candy and soda. Not to mention the fact that most movies are available for home viewing on a DVD within months of their release.

You may also be interested in: Why does popcorn cost so much at the movies?

So what’s an independent film producer who lives in Mexico City doing sinking millions of dollars into a six-screen movie theater complex in downtown Portland? One that doesn’t even show first-run movies. Right now he and his partner are making enough money to stay in business, showing some fine films, learning some lessons about what people will pay to see, and redefining the movie-going experience.

Living Room Theaters opened right at the beginning of 2007. The low-slung building looks from the outside more like the latest Pearl District hipster’s hangout. It sits one block south of Powell’s Books. You could easily walk by the large windows of the full-service bar and cafe without realizing it’s a theater complex. But the movie posters give it away. And there’s a story in those posters that says a lot about what people want and are willing to go to the movies to see.

“When we first opened we didn’t have many decorations, so my father decided to get some classic movie posters to put up on the walls,” says Diego Rimoch, son of one of the owners, Ernesto Rimoch. Ernesto is a movie producer and director who was once the president of the Independent Producer’s Association in Mexico.

“One of the posters was for ‘Casablanca,’” says Diego. “And he thought it would be funny to put ‘Coming Soon’ on the poster. People saw that and started asking us when it would be showing. We hadn’t an intention to show it, but enough people asked about it that we got in contact with Warner Brothers, got a digital print, and it ran for three months. ‘Casablanca’ turned out to be one of our four best-grossing films.”

It also showed that there’s an audience ready to pay $9 to see old classics and sit in comfortable, cushioned chairs in a 50-seat theater, eat really good food, and drink fine wine or quality beer. They’ll also pay a slight premium to see somewhat obscure independent films overlooked by the slew of other local movie theaters. They will even pay a slight premium to see movies already out on DVD.

Here’s the list, according to Diego, of the four best-grossing films shown at Living Room Theaters since they opened some 14 months ago:

“Casablanca” — This film proved really popular in a special Valentine’s Day screening.

“The Lives of Others” — This German film won the Best Foreign Picture Oscar in 2007. It had already shown on other screens in Portland and Living Room Theaters didn’t get it until around the time the DVD was released. It still did very well for them, which has to say something about the appeal of the environment they’ve created at Southwest 10th and Stark.

“Broken English” — The popularity of this indie film may say something about the people who patronize Living Room Theaters. It’s the work of Zoe Cassavetes, daughter of the man considered by many to be the artistic godfather of the Indie film movement in America, John Cassavetes. It also stars the queen of the Indies, Parker Posey.

“I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With” — Diego still isn’t sure why this comedy from Jeff Garlin, Larry David’s manager in the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” did as well as it did. He’s not a big fan of it but is a savvy enough manager not to question the taste of the audience. Maybe it was the references to the classic Ernest Borgnine film from 1953, “Marty,” that found an audience here.

Chances are, if you look at the listings for Living Room Theaters, you’ll scratch your head. There are six screens and four of the screens are devoted to fare you won’t always find in other Portland-area theaters. The owners are taking risks, but they are calculated risks. Ernesto calls the booking shots from his office in Mexico City. His choices are based on what’s available, first of all, and then he looks to see how a film opened in bigger markets like Los Angeles and New York, what critics wrote about it, and how it’s ranked by users of the website (The Internet Movie Database). So far the formula has resulted in a few stiffs but enough hits to keep patrons coming back.

Based on the draw of “Casablanca,” two of the six screens will always show classics. Coming in April is the Classics of American Crime film series that will feature “Bonnie and Clyde,” Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway,” and the Steve McQueen vehicle “Bullitt.” Who knows which of these, or other future features from the archives of Warner Brothers, will prove popular with Portland-area audiences?

It’s hard to say to what extent the Living Room Theaters concept works because the movies are shown digitally in hi-def. There’s no question “Casablanca” never looked better unless you saw it on one of America’s really big, pre-multiplex screens during World War II. Diego and one of his technical advisors, Steve Herring, took time recently to patiently explain to me the technological revolution underway in the movie business and how the way they’re screening films represents the future of the business. Fine. But what really appeals to me, as one who still loves to see a movie in the dark, is their vow never to show commercials before the main feature.

Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes the monthly movie column for BNW.

BrainstormNW - April 2008

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