Fairfield Ledger

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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 17, 2018

New management tries to get Orpheum back on its feet

By Jon Gilrain, Ledger Correspondent | Feb 14, 2018
Photo by: JON GILRAIN/Ledger photo A view inside the Orpheum Theater.

The Orpheum Theater in downtown Fairfield is under new management, and plans are being laid to solicit community support to reintroduce the venue to the residents of Fairfield and neighboring communities.

Fairfield businessman and entrepreneur Dan Walker has partnered with current building owner Johnson Real Estate to take over management of the facility, and is looking for new ways to create a long term solution for the theater.

The Orpheum Theater, operating for many decades under the name Co-Ed Theater, closed its doors in 2012 when parent company Big Time Cinema filed for bankruptcy. Since then, Johnson Real Estate has made substantial renovations and upgrades in the art-deco style to both the interior lobby and bathrooms and exterior facade of the venerable building.

A number of unsuccessful attempts to revitalize the venue have since unfolded, and Walker aims to take a longer view in finding a lasting place for the Orpheum Theater in the life of the community.

Walker explained, “We’re looking for a model that makes sense. Right now a theater like this, due to its size and the size of the town, is not a good model for a small business. I think it’s a necessity for a small town, but it’s more along the lines of a swimming pool, a tennis court, a library or civic center. It’s a quality of life enhancer. To make it work in today’s movie market is really hard. Our model right now is to spend the next six months getting community support.”

Walker went on to explain his plan to reach out to local community-minded businesses for help with sponsorships and other activities to help subsidize operations and achieve objectives on the path to offering first-run films again.

A significant challenge to offering current theater run movies is the move over the past decade to digital distribution of films to cinemas. Gone are the days where 35 mm film canisters are produced and sent to theaters around the country. Over the past decade, major studios and distributors embraced the Digital Cinema Initiative and the highly encrypted Digital Cinema Package format.

This new initiative saves film distributors billions of dollars in costs annually, virtually eliminates content piracy, improves film quality and adds improved accessibility for the visually impaired and hearing impaired. Despite the many benefits, the costs of this new distribution format still scale high for small town theaters, according to Walker.

In addition to a high up front cost to acquire a popular first-run film, most distributors also take 50 percent of ticket sales and require the film to be shown seven days a week, sometimes for two weeks incurring a significant staffing cost. Without a strong draw for that many consecutive showings, small-town theaters cannot recoup their costs.

Also, compliance with the new digital initiative comes with a cost. The DCP format requires a standards-compliant projector, with costs starting at near $50,000.

Considering these challenges, Walker has sought to partner with the community. Despite the obstacles, he very much believes that getting the theater back to showing first-run films is a key to long-term success.

To get there, he acknowledges that he has to work with what he has, but was clear that the project would be “broad-based and community minded,” and where recent years have seen some very niche films with a more narrow audience shown at the Orpheum, he was adamant that until they get back to first-run films, “we’ll get the best films we can get.”

He was quick to point out that the Orpheum Theater has some key strengths. In addition to the renovations, there is a functional café space with a modern commercial kitchen. He would like to find someone to partner with in creating a food venue for both movie-goers and the public generally.

He also pointed out the modern and comfortable seating in the theater space and the high-quality sound system. The unused north theater space needs some work on the floor, but represents a variety of possibilities as an event space and potentially a second theater space.

The Orpheum Theater opened in 1910 showing silent movies and other theatrical productions. The name was changed in the mid-century and reflected the college-town quality of Fairfield. As it attempts to reinvent itself in the new millennium, time will tell if it can return to its place of prominence in the community.

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Posted by: Glen Joseph Peiffer | Feb 15, 2018 10:56

Made In Iowa on Vimeo

By Wini Austin

At the 2018 Academy Awards in March, critically-acclaimed movies such as “Lady Bird,” “The Post,” “Get Out,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Shape of Water” will compete for awards and acclaim. Yet at Grinnell’s Strand Theater, many of the year’s most talked-about films were absent from the lineup.

Thought locally owned, the Strand Theater is one of twenty movie theaters operated in Iowa and Nebraska by R.L. Fridley, Inc. With its friendly atmosphere and retro lobby décor, the Strand is a destination for many residents of Grinnell, but some members of the community have wondered how the programming decisions are made at the Strand — why some popular films make the cut, while others do not.

Ultimately, it comes down to availability, economics and demographics. R.L. Fridley president and film booker Brian Fridley explained how these factors control the movie titles that make it to the big screen at Grinnell and other Fridley locations.

“We don’t get to play whatever we want, whenever we want. The film companies decide where and when their films play; we can only make requests,” Fridley wrote in an email to The S&B.

When deciding which theaters should show their films, companies like Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. and Universal Studios look at the gross profits of comparable movies at each location. If the returns are not high enough, that theater will be less likely receive similar films.

Film companies also consider the number of screens a theater has.

“With only three screens in Grinnell, the options are limited,” Fridley explained. “I must decide on what will bring the most people to the theatre in a given week.”

Using film companies’ tracking data, Fridley also considers the level of interest different demographics have in certain films. Critically-acclaimed horror satire “Get Out,” for example, was played at the Strand for a week in March 2017, but generated meager box office success. “Lady Bird” and “Call Me by Your Name” also met with limited demand.

“The Oscar-nominated films in past years have not translated into want-to-see by the public,” Fridley wrote.

“The Shape of Water,” which was nominated for thirteen Oscars, earned only $507 in Fridley’s best-grossing theaters — a financial loss. If that happens too frequently, investors are responsible for making up the losses.

Evidently, the absence of certain popular movies in Grinnell reflects the economic demands of its residents, and the limitations of a small movie theater.

While many factors prevent some movies from making it to Grinnell, Fridley Theatre’s programming decisions for the Strand take into account the entertainment interests of a wide range of audiences, from college students to the elderly.

“I try to balance the lineup when possible so we have something for everyone,” Fridley wrote.

Upcoming titles at the Strand include “Fifty Shades Freed,” “Peter Rabbit” and “12 Strong.”

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