It used to be going out to the movies was a distinctly American pastime. But movie theater attendance is down to a 19-year low, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In the mountains of Western North Carolina however, that hasn’t been the case. BPR’s Davin Eldridge explores why…
With the advent of online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, more and more people are staying at home to watch the latest blockbuster. Yet business is good for many theaters throughout the mountains, albeit hard-earned.
“So far, so good. This business has its ups and downs,” that’s Abbey Steele, owner-operator of Co-Ed Cinema in Brevard. “It’s a bit of a roller coaster, honestly.”
At just 21-years-old, Steele is among the youngest theater owners in the region, just four years in the game. As challenging as it is to remain profitable, she says she’s still glad she made the investment.
“It’s something I was always attracted to. I never thought I would be able to do it as young as I did, but it worked out really well.”
Like her fellow theater owners, Steele says the trick to running a cinema in a small mountain town is really two-fold. First, catering to a highly-selective local market is essential. Second, taking advantage of blockbusters is a must, especially during the region’s lucrative tourist season.
“Brevard is a very odd market. Brevard is very much senior oriented, pretty much year-round. It’s a very fickle market as well. It’s hard to plan around. Sometimes we think we’ve got something that’s the perfect movie, and it’s not. It’s kind of rolling the dice.”
Theaters in neighboring counties try to roll the dice as little as possible. Unless it’s a highly-anticipated release with lots of backing, like the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s “It”, small town audiences can safely bet their local cinemas will have plenty of comedies, but not many horror films. Just ask David Palier, owner of Ruby Cinemas in Franklin.
“No questions asked: family movies, animated movies, I have a huge market for that. Over time, I have pushed with some of the smaller movies, rated R movies. We are starting to make a little bit of headway. Followed by your Marvel, Star Wars-type movies.”
Parlier’s been in the theater business for about twenty years. He says while streaming services do present theaters like his with additional challenges, part of the reason cinemas do so well in the mountains is, well, there’s just less to do.
“There’s less competition when you decide hey we want to leave the house tonight. What do we want to do? And sometimes a small town theater does have that advantage, because there’s not as much stuff.”
As a result, area theaters rely on a strong corps of regular return customers.
“It really doesn’t matter what we have playing. It’s more of the experience and hanging out with their group of friends, and they’ll come in here. Of course, there’s other individuals that just try to catch a movie once a week even though they’re not with a group.”
The cinematic experience is being capitalized on in other ways throughout the mountains. Dinner and a movie, for instance, is proving to be a tremendously popular experience at Mad Batter in downtown Sylva.
“It’s been excellent. The movies have been a lot of fun. People just really enjoy it,” that’s restaurant owner Jeanette Evans. She says her 100 seat restaurant’s movie nights regularly sell out. “People like to emote together. When they come to town they kind of want to be around others.”
Back in Franklin, Parlier echoes Evans.
“I think ppl still recognize that going to the movie theater is still an experience, and I think some movies are movie theater-type movies. You don’t wanna watch Star Wars on your forty inch television at home. You wanna go to the theater and watch it on a thirty foot screen, with all the surround, all the immersion, and partaking in what’s slowly becoming kind of the last great American social experience. I think sometimes people are just, ‘let’s get out of the house’.”
Despite steady ticket sales, mountain theaters do find themselves trying out new things to stay ahead of the digital competition. Ruby Cinemas recently began a partnership with the town of Franklin to hold a free outdoor family movie night once a month at Town Hall, and Co-Ed Cinema in Brevard will offer a free holiday film showing once a week during the months of October and December.