Ten years ago people told Craig Smith that opening a movie theater during an economic recession and at the early stages of streaming services was a crazy idea. Now movie theaters like the Firehouse Theater in Kingston are struggling to stay alive despite receiving attention from the likes of the Wall Street Journal and CBS ahead of the Oscars.
“I was told, by more than one person, nobody in their right mind opens up an old fashioned movie theater and that’s exactly what I did. I’m absolutely out of my mind,” Smith laughs. “I know that now, but I didn’t know that then. You know it was a passion.”
Smith opened the Firehouse Theater, a two-screen theater that seats 144 people in one theater and 48 in the other, in July 2009. The opening of the theater marked a historical event for the town of Kingston, which never had its own movie theater, something Smith knew too well growing up in Indianola and going to local drive-ins or crossing the Puget Sound to go see movies in Seattle.
Smith’s passion for movies and film as a child led him to earn a degree in theater from the Evergreen State College and even pursued an acting career in New York, all while keeping an eye on the burgeoning movie rental business. Smith eventually returned to Kingston to open Peninsula Video, which was open for 30 years until the tide turned to video streaming services.
“It was big and bold. For movie lovers, they’d take it home … and then that died. I looked back and thought, well what had started it all? Watching movies in a theater, that’s never gonna die. Now there are concerns,” Smith said.
According to Smith since he’s been open, over 1,400 small theaters like his have closed due to a lack of people going to movie theaters in addition to the costs of maintaining and running a theater, getting big-time movies to show at the theater and competing with
movie giants like Regal and AMC — who also have had to make big changes to attract audiences.
Early on, one of the costliest changes that the Firehouse Theater and Smith had to make was the switch from 35-millimeter film reels to digital projectors in 2012. The switch cost the theater nearly $150,000, which couldn’t be recovered by selling the outdated film reel equipment, which had become nearly worthless.
But with streaming services producing Oscar and Emmy-worthy content, it’s getting harder and harder for small theaters like Firehouse to stay alive. However, Smith maintains an optimistic outlook, that seeing movies in a theater is part of the art form and that the shared experience of seeing a movie in a theater with other people is what will keep movie theaters like his alive.
“It’s an art form, it isn’t just entertainment. To see it the way it’s supposed to be seen, you need an auditorium. I don’t care if its a sheet on the wall with folding chairs. You want a group of others with a shared interest to have the shared emotional response. You just don’t get that on your laptop or your TV at home, unless you throw a party or something,” Smith said.
Smith started the Firehouse Theater with the initial intent to show independent and art house films, which he still does. But over the last 10 years, he had shown big blockbuster films as well such as Star Wars and Marvel films. The trouble is with big films like that, the studios want them to run for certain amounts of time, which after the first few weeks can be costly to small theaters.
Smith thought that the bidding process for films was going to get better after the switch to digital because rather than $2,500 film reels, the films were distributed using hard drives that cost $100-$150. But the cost to maintain the digital technology has also served to force ticket and concession prices up. This, in combination with the growing popularity of streaming services, has winnowed movie theater profits and crowds over the last decade.
“Less people are going to the movies. Prices are going up, partly to offset the loss in sales. The overhead is going up. So maybe people who want to watch these cool little movies are waiting until Netflix has it? Also, Netflix is trying to paint the picture that you don’t need to go to a movie theater anymore. Why? I mean it’s a different experience,” Smith said.
Smith said he will be launching a GoFundMe campaign this year to help keep up with the costs of maintaining the theater and bringing content that folks want to see. Noting that movie theaters, unlike other art forms such as the symphony or opera, aren’t subsidized or supported by fundraisers usually.
“Now this is nowhere near as expensive as the ballet, but I see where that’s possibly going to go … I’ve spent half a million dollars and I’ve still got debt,” Smith said.
“I don’t want to see this place close, a lot of people don’t … we’re going to have to somehow subsidize it,” he added.
A little known fact about any movie theater, big or small is that their money is made not by ticket sales, but rather concessions. Instead of the title “movie theater owner,” Smith calls himself a concessionaire.
“When you’re going to a theater and buying that ticket, you’re not really supporting the theater that much. Buy some popcorn, don’t sneak it in. Like 30 percent of the things eaten in the theater are snuck in … I could be offended, but I understand the simple economics of it, but they don’t understand the simple economics of keeping a cool theater … I’m a concessionaire business-wise moreso than a guy that shows movies, most people don’t know that,” Smith said.
One of the things that set the Firehouse Theater’s concessions apart from others is its real buttered popcorn. According to Smith, he goes through over 100 pounds of butter a week.
In a 2009 interview with the North Kitsap Herald, Smith said he had a vision for the theater, when asked if that vision has changed in the last decade, the concessionaire said survival has become a focus, but the ideals and focus of Kingston’s Firehouse Theater remain the same.
“Survival has definitely affected what, how and when I do things, but the ideals and intentions are still the backbone. I still show movies I believe should be shown, on a screen, and shared. I believe in the art of film, not just entertainment. I’ll show two different sides of controversial films. I’m the librarian, I don’t make the movies and I’m not pushing an agenda here,” Smith said. “I’m sticking to my guns, I’ve just had to struggle to pay bills and I’ve never wanted to go ask for money, but I’ve had that picture painted to me in no uncertain terms.”