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The Rise (and Return) of Digital Movie Houses

By tt stern-enzi · August 21st, 2013 · Fall Arts Preview
fallarts_filmfeature_thelittlearttheatreThe Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs
In my decade-plus-long stint covering the film beat in Cincinnati and Dayton, there is one unfulfilled dream that has, in my estimation, kept the region from pushing out of the middle-of-the-second-tier exhibition markets and possibly cracking that major market barrier. 

We need elite movie houses, both multiplex chains and art houses, willing to commit not only to bringing bolder, more adventurous films to the region, but also to working with local film groups to develop and promote film outreach programming that will engage local filmgoers and attract cineastes throughout the Midwest and beyond. 

And so it seems, to paraphrase that signature quote from Field of Dreams, as part of that first step towards this notion, you’ve got to build it if you expect them to come. The “it” being more of those movie houses, and this fall, the region gets two such foundational creations — a brand new multiplex (and the introduction of a new chain) and a renovation/upgrade to an existing player.

Cinemark Oakley Station

What started as a rumor and whispered words has become like machinery breaking ground, laying the foundation for what could become the cornerstone of a new community. Oakley Station, a mixed-use commercial and residential development anchoring the new Ridge cut off of I-71, makes its presence known with the initial regional opening of Cinemark Theaters, which means that for all intents and purposes, film is the first new resident in the Oakley Station complex.

This is big news for Cincinnati, a city bursting at the seams with development potential and a hankering to pair that with entertainment options, particularly arts-based forms. But the opening of this theater marks the first appearance of the Cinemark brand into this part of Southeastern Ohio. Kicking off with a new gem (a VIP Grand Opening on Aug. 8 was followed by the facility’s first opening weekend on Aug. 9), Cinemark will, over the course of the next six to 12 months, unveil a re-branding of several new acquisitions as well.

The chain bought three Rave locations in the area (Milford, Western Hills and Florence) along with The Greene in Kettering and will slowly transition those locations into full-Cinemark theaters.

Wisely, Cinemark chose to, in effect, start from scratch. The Oakley Station site provides a strong first impression to woo moviegoers. Although it is a multiplex in all the ways that matter — 14 screens with 2D, 3D and their extreme XD option (the Cinemark version of IMAX projection) — the marketing team behind the curtain preaches the consumer gospel of choice. Starting with online, ATM-styled automation and old-fashioned counter options for ticket purchasing, plus self-service cafeteria concession stations featuring Starbucks products as well as a variety of adult beverages, Cinemark wants patrons to feel like they control their experience from the moment they enter the space until they exit the screening. (cinemark.com/theatre-1077)

The Little Art Theatre

On the other end of the spectrum, refocusing the vision beyond the city limits means cheering the re-opening of The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs. Right off the bat, what separates The Little Art from a new player like Cinemark is its status as a regional arts institution. The theater, thanks to its designation as a nonprofit entity, conducted a 2012 fundraising campaign to do extensive renovations like upgrading to digital projection — the industry standard — which would allow for greater access to more affordable prints of titles, especially the independent features and documentaries that play in the major markets.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, audiences will get their first look at the new and improved The Little Art. The all-day kickoff is more of an open house, a welcoming invitation for neighbors and patrons. Special programming will commence on Sept. 29 with a selection of recent independent releases to reward eager film fans who invested in the ongoing mission of The Little Art.

Such a fundraising campaign rallies film lovers and the community in ways that a corporate presence like Cinemark simply can’t. 

Acknowledging this reality is not an attempt to pit multiplexes against small art houses because at their core, each understands the complex realities of doing business from the other’s perspective. But this model highlights the grassroots commitment between an institution and a community that can sustain long-term regional programming.

Yet, Cinemark seeks to create an engaging environment that supports the experience of moviegoing — getting people out of their homes and away from their cellphones and tablets for a shared encounter. On the most basic level, it matters little whether the film is a studio blockbuster, a dependent production, or a festival-vetted indie. The Little Art also wants to be that place where cinema lovers can be the first regional viewers to see “that film,” the one they will re-visit years later through cherished anecdotes. (littleart.com)

Audience Partnership

But what does this mean for regional audiences?

In and of themselves, the additional screens don’t necessarily change the dynamic of engaging filmgoers. Fourteen more screens means we will simply have more chances to see the same product the studios flood the market with each Friday. If you want to see The Lone Ranger during its opening week run, you can now also catch it at Oakley Station rather than choosing between theaters at Newport on the Levee and West Chester.

But there’s a subtle shift that could emerge. If Cinemark becomes an active and engaged partner with the regional audience, then, like The Little Art, it could evolve into an institution with the ability to foster and develop a real presence for film programming (from festivals to preservation and educational events). Cities with top-tier festivals and year-round programming understand that networks need to be established between all players — multiplexes, art houses and patrons.  

Here’s to taking the next step toward making the Cincinnati region a more cinematic field full of big screen dreams. ©



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