Neighborhood movie theaters specializing in lesser-known films seem to be holding their own in an era of multiscreen megaplexes
By Nancy Shohet West
June 6, 2010
Peter Siy is an executive in residence at Bentley University, and reviewing business plans with students is part of his job.
But when aspiring entrepreneurs ask Siy about the feasibility of running a small independent movie theater in an age of megaplexes, it’s more than an academic question.
Siy and his wife, Erica Carr, have been the owners of a century-old, two-screen, 275-seat movie theater in Lexington Center for nearly two years now.
Instead of “Iron Man 2’’ or “Robin Hood,’’ the Lexington Venue entices moviegoers with such films as the Argentine drama “The Secret in Their Eyes.’’
“My wife and I like good independent cinema regardless of whether it’s a comedy, a drama, or whatever,’’ Siy said. “This spring we showed ‘The Art of the Steal,’ a documentary about the Barnes art collection in Philadelphia. It’s a great documentary. Not a lot of people came to see it, but those who did were blown away.’’
Siy’s peers in the business believe that the Boston suburbs are as good a market for independent theaters as any. Despite the prevalence of sprawling multiplexes and the eternal appeal of Hollywood blockbusters, the area hosts a number of smaller movie houses showing lesser-known independent films, including the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, the West Newton Cinema, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, the Embassy Cinema in Waltham, and Maynard’s Fine Arts Theatre.
Though they do not all fit the same business model — Waltham’s Embassy Cinema is owned by the national Landmark Theatres chain, and the Coolidge Corner is operated by a not-for-profit foundation governed by a board of directors — each is committed to screening the films that probably wouldn’t fly at a typical chain theater.
At West Newton, the recent lineup included “Babies,’’ “Vincere,’’ and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,’’ among other lower-profile films, with their genres running the gamut from documentary to subtitled foreign film to art film to family favorite.
“We have a mission to bring the best quality foreign, independent and specialty films that we can find into the marketplace,’’ said co-owner David Bramante. “Fortunately for us, there’s a strong market for independent films in an area like West Newton. We fill a niche.’’
Theaters like the West Newton Cinema compete to some extent with bigger venues, Bramante said, but making a comparison to the struggles of independent bookstores is not a sound analogy.
“People can buy many of the same books in a small independent bookstore that they buy at a big-box store,’’ he said. “They can choose to go to the big-box store simply to have more variety.’’
However, megaplexes don’t show the kind of films that his cinema does, he said, so West Newton benefits from an entirely different crowd.
The same is true for the Coolidge in Brookline.
“We are following a very different path from the megaplexes,’’ said Michael Maynard, chairman of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation’s board of directors. “We show a different kind of programming. We also offer a really different experience in terms of what happens when you come to see a film.
“We have no on-screen advertising. We have 400 seats, a big velvet curtain, Art Deco architecture and finishes,’’ he said. “It’s the kind of experience past generations came to the movies to have, and we’re finding that the current generation of filmgoers likes it as well.’’
Another local favorite among small-cinema aficionados is the Capitol Theatre in Arlington, owned by the Fraiman family, which also owns the Somerville Theatre. The Capitol’s niche, according to director of operations Ian Judge, is family films.
“We’re in a neighborhood with a lot of children and families, so that works well for us,’’ he said. “We recently put an ice cream parlor in the lobby.’’
Family films are not all that the Capitol Theatre offers, though; it is currently showing high-definition versions of five classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.
For Siy and his wife, the decision to purchase the old Lexington Flick operation, and rechristen it as the Venue, came at the end of a long process.
“My wife and I are big fans of independent films,’’ he said. “We went to the Kendall Square theater often. Then once we moved to Lexington we would visit the Flick, which was then a rundown theater, and find it very discouraging that this great resource wasn’t being put to better use. But it took me five years to convince the previous owner to sell.’’
The means to purchase it, as well as the business expertise, came from Siy’s successful run in the technology sector in the 1990s. After selling his software company, White Mountain DSP, in 1999, Siy said, he “floated around for a while,’’ and then earned a graduate degree in finance at Bentley.
But rather than apply his business acumen at another large company, Siy decided owning an independent theater in the town where he lived was a way of giving back to the community.
His mission, he said, is to provide Lexington with a community gathering place dedicated to promoting the arts.
Last month, Lexington Venue staged a film festival to showcase works by local high school students. Last summer, the theater welcomed a crew from Hollywood that included Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams to film a scene for “The Fighter,’’ and it has also hosted local benefit events as well as a discussion by Nechama Tec, the author of “Defiance,’’ the book behind last year’s Hollywood film starring Daniel Craig.
In collaboration with some of his Bentley students, Siy is drafting plans to bring a large film festival to Lexington in 2012.
“You need to hit a sweet spot between filling seats and showing great films,’’ Siy said. “Sometimes Hollywood makes that easy with movies such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or ‘Juno,’ which are basically independent films that cross into the mainstream through word-of-mouth popularity. But independent films have small advertising budgets, so part of our mission is to provide a forum for wonderful films that the public might not know about.’’
To ensure that customers who make the trip to Lexington Venue feel comfortable, Siy has spent a significant amount of money on renovations during the past year. “This theater is almost one hundred years old,’’ he said. “We’ve restored the ceiling, the seats, and the interior, while trying to keep all the details classic.’’
David Wells identifies himself as a lifelong Lexingtonian who has been seeing movies in the theater since he was a boy, and reports that it’s a vastly improved experience these days, and not only because of the variety of films Siy chooses.
“I always tell Peter how impressed I am with the courtesy of the young people who work for him,’’ Wells said. “That aspect alone is so refreshing compared with the experience of going to the big-box theaters. The Lexington Venue always seems kind of hometowny, a nice little local theater, and I like how Peter has spruced it up. But really, what I like most about it is seeing a group of really nice young people waiting on us and being very friendly. I never remember the names of movies I’ve seen after I see them, but I definitely remember how great the staff is.’’
George Gamota, another Lexington resident happy to have the Venue as a neighbor, estimates that he sees movies there every couple of weeks.
“The Lexington Venue brings in movies that might be less popular but are more thought-provoking,’’ he said. “We’ve seen some very good foreign movies there, like ‘Chocolat,’ films that are interesting and worthwhile.
“It’s wonderful to be able to go and see a movie without the hassle of thousands of people around you.’’