Thursday, January 28, 1999

A corny idea to keep good little movies

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        My mom says they don't get art movies in her small town in northwestern Ohio. I think I know why. Her neighbors just don't eat enough popcorn.

        They probably could use more people like me. I am a popcorn junkie, especially movie popcorn. Forget Milk Duds and Twizzlers. A movie calls for popcorn and plenty of it. Even if it was popped around the time of the Ming Dynasty. Even if it has that faux butter stuff on it. Even if the server pounds it into crumbs with his metal scoop.

Swine-sized portion
        And I'll pay for my popcorn fix. Big. It doesn't matter how much they charge, I need popcorn and I'll buy it. I don't understand people who can sail right past the concession stand without loading up. They are bloodless.

        You know those swine-sized popcorn tubs they have at the Esquire and Mariemont theaters? The ones that are supposed to feed a family of 12? I can eat one of those before the movie is half over. Sitting next to me sounds like you have stumbled into a termite convention.

        Those two little theaters have terrific popcorn, by the way. It is popped on the premises “as we sell it,” Gary S. Goldman says proudly. He's president of Theater Management Corp., which manages the Esquire on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton and the Mariemont on the newly spiffed up Mariemont Square.

        Gary, a lawyer, says he was in the movie biz from the time he was a kid. His family once owned five theaters here, including the old Regal on Linn Street, which Gary managed until it closed about five years ago.

        “Our problem was the single screen,” he says. “We just couldn't make it pay.”

        In 1929, the year of the first Academy Awards, an average of 95 million Americans went to movies every week. Now, movies lure only about 27 million of us from our big-screen TVs and computers. The country has fewer than a third as many theater sites today as we did 70 years ago, but the buildings are carved into lots of little rooms with screens.

        “You never know what the public will go for,” Gary says, “and if you've got one screen and pick a loser, well ... .” I can feel a mild shudder over the phone lines.

Megamovie gatekeepers
        As theaters such as the Regal closed, the chains expanded. “These large chains, and their centralized film bookers, are the principal gatekeepers for the American film industry,” writes Edward Jay Epstein in The New Yorker. “And they are responsible for determining what movies most Americans see.”

        Patrons of theaters that show independent films spend less money on snacks than people who frequent the cineplexes, according to Gary. He says he thinks it's because prices at his theaters are more reasonable.

        A tub of popcorn costs $3 at his theaters. A big sack of popcorn at a National Amusements concession stand is $4.50.

        Personally, I suspect it's because many of the people who patronize the art theaters are the same people who go to the symphony and the ballet, and they're used to having their entertainment without a buffet.

        They will learn.

        At least I hope so, because Gary says a little stiffly that “concession sales significantly enter into the overall financial viability of theaters like ours.” Popcorn, he says, is most profitable.

        So, if you want to see movies such as Life is Beautiful in addition to movies such as Titanic, you should give this some thought. If you want to see movies such as Waking Ned Devine and Little Voice instead of movies such as I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Jerry Springer, Ringmaster, then your choice is clear.

        Step up to the trough.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail, call 768-8393, or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine. Her book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at