Looking for Advice

posted by karen on December 30, 2003 at 2:23 pm

My husband and I are considering purchasing an old, 200-seat, one-screen theater in a small town in Texas. It has been closed for a few years because the owners got too old to mess with it anymore, but according to the realtor it seems to have all the basics (assuming it still works).

We are going to look at it this weekend. We have no experience in theaters. This is all new to us. We would appreciate ANY advice or direction.

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Comments (1)

VinceEmmons on January 4, 2004 at 4:33 pm

Careful! There’s a tremendous laundry list of problems with reviving old abandoned or neglected theaters. There’s almost always a good reason these places went out of business, and why it often takes direct city involvement (and municipal monetary support) to get one re-opened.

First, if it’s been closed for years, and the utilities have been off, you can safely assume that the HVAC systems are inoperable and will probabaly need full repalcement. Secondly, without internal climate control, you have the ideal conditions for mold, mildew, dry-rot, etc that may make the building un-inhabitable without tremendous amounts of work (the drapes, carpet, seat upholstery, screen valences and masking, etc will at bare minimum smell badly, perhaps be unsafe, and may be beyond rescuing). These conditions also exacerbate the damage that can be caused by even very small amounts of water (such as the cumulative effects of a pin-hole leak in a roof left un-monitored over several years).

The projection and sound equipment may indeed be all there, but even if the sound system miraculously still works, it will be completely obsolete. The projector itself, without climate protection for years, will certainly warrant thorough professional attention, and may also need replacement.

Make sure before you even bother paying a building professional to inspect the theater that you still have an audience and can get plenty of film product. Where have your potential customers gone in the intervening years? If they’ve grown accustomed to the modern amenities of a gleaming new multiplex in the next town, with stadium seats and digital sound, nice area restaurants, lots of free parking, etc you may have a very tough time winning them back to this place, no matter how much you clean the ol' gal up. It may also pay you to ask an independent film booker for some brutally frank advice….if you can’t get the major studios to provide a steady stream of product, you’re going to be in trouble quick.

Local building code officials will expect you to bring the theater in to full compliance with all applicable regulations (ADA guidelines, electrical upgrades, fire alarm systems, sprinklers, etc) and any one of these issues could be expensive enough to make it impractical as a profit-making venture.

Don’t want to discourage you from perhpas saving a worthy old palace, but this is absolutely a dangerous endeavor to undertake without lots of external support, particularly if you are new to the business.

How can you make it work? Find out if the city has an interest in using the theater to showcase the revitalization of their downtown or business district. Ask if they would be willing to provide grants or other assistance related to getting the building up to safe modern operating conditions. In some cases, a city might be encouraged to buy the building, address all the serious concerns, and then lease out the site to a qualified operator or enter in to a management contract (they own it, but others run it for a fee).If the building is appropriate for small stage productions, you may be able to share the burden with a community playhouse company. It may also be an excellent meeting place for communities that lack their own town hall, another reason for them to support getting it open. Consider operating it as an art-house theater (only works with particular demographic groups though) to avoid the fisticuffs involved in first-run exhibition.

Hope this helps, and good luck!


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