While the rest of Seattle pounded its chest Sunday night in triumph over the Seahawks astounding last minute comeback, cinema goers and film connoisseurs gathered at the Northwest Film Forum to discuss the evolution of the film industry and reminisce over the closing of the Harvard Exit theater. Sunday’s audience engaged with a panel of film and cinema-savvy folks who laid out the state of independent cinema in the age of Netflix and did what they could to put the demise of the Harvard Exit into context.
George Kindl, former manager of the Harvard Exit, gave a brief history on the theater and what lead up to its eventual closing. He didn’t blame Landmark Theaters for the closure, attributing it more to the new building owner who doesn’t envision the space as a theater in the future. He was also quick to point out that he wasn’t a “Landmark apologist,” citing Landmark’s alleged routine unfulfilled promises for refurbishing its theaters.
Film editor for The Stranger and panelist Charles Mudede said that establishments like the Harvard Exit with “cultural significance” shouldn’t close just because they can’t stay profitable and succumb to the pressures of the market, saying that the community or government should financially intervene similar to bank bailouts.
After a hour long session of Q&A with the panelists, the audience listened to former employees of the Harvard Exit and also recently closed On 15th Video rental store read personal tributes to their former beloved places of work while the Harvard Exit “ghost” silently roamed the theater. The night wound down with Kindl telling swapping stories with audience members ranging from ghost stories to awkward encounters with Sean Penn in the Harvard Exit lobby.
The closure of the Harvard Exit as the last of the old-school commercial “art house” film venues on Capitol Hill leaves a small handful of new-era film destinations continuing to operate in the area. In October, SIFF reopened the Egyptian Theatre for a new, 10-year run under the non-profit’s wings. Meanwhile,12th Ave and 23rd and Union continue to produce new and innovative and fun film experiences at NWFF and Central Cinema.
Sunday night, no one denied the fact that the cinema market has changed drastically due to unyielding forces of the market.
Jeff Brein, one of the panelists and managing partner at Far Away entertainment, which operates theaters in Seattle and around the Puget Sound, noted that the vast diversification of movie watching platforms has flipped cinema age demographics on its head and reduced the number of people going to the theaters, while studios take an increasingly large share of ticket sales. “There is only so much you can charge for popcorn and Pepsi,” said Brein.
“The golden age for moviegoers used to be that 18 to 34 year old bracket,” said Brein. “We’ve seen a shift in older audiences coming back into theaters.”
Blockbuster movie franchises (that never seem to end) pushed by megaplex cinemas such as Regal were denounced by the panelists, though Dave McRae, a film exhibitor at Ark Lodge Cinema, said that such films supply a steady revenue stream that allow venues to also offer quality independent productions catering to smaller and less profitable markets. But he admitted his theater is still a “no-profit business” and barely scraping by.
“I have to dedicate the few screens that I have with the limited amount of seats that I have to films that are going to help me pay my rent and keep my employees paid,” said McRae.
At the same time everyone noted that there is no shortage of independent films out there, the question being how to distribute and publicize them with the limited funds that such projects have, with panelist and independent filmmaker Megan Griffiths saying that “channeling the [independent] movies to the people is the next great problem to surmount”.
Brein discussed the various wild leaps studios have been taking to better deliver films to an evolving market such as interactive movies or membership deals where film goers get unlimited trips to the cinema for a monthly flat fee.
In the same vein, Brein had faith not only in the enduring reputation of a night out at the cinema as an affordable source of entertainment, but also in the public’s ability to respond to good storytelling. “At the end of the day, no matter what is on that screen, how cool it looks, whether it’s 3D, whatever, if the story isn’t good, people aren’t going to go and see it,” he said.
Despite the somewhat gloomy picture painted by the panelists, they weren’t without optimism. “Technologies come and they always say that, like when radio came they said that was the death of the printed page,” said McRae.
Audience members and the panelist discussed ways to save theaters such as the Harvard Exit, such as crowdfunding, achieving non-profit status like Scarecrow Video, or getting a few wealthy donors to chip in. Mudede, film editor at The Stranger and self-described marxist, said that given the “cultural significance” of institutions such as the Harvard Exit to the local community, they should be taken out of the market. “We talk about things like banks being too big to fail, but we never talk about cultural institutions being too important to fail. Why in the world does it even need to make fucking money?”