Vineyard theater owners explain lag time with blockbusters

Both the Capawock Theatre (pictured) and Edgartown Cinemas want the blockbusters, but getting them on opening weekend proves nearly impossible. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Two weeks ago, the blockbuster movie “The Hunger Games,” based on a trilogy of young adult novels, opened in more than 4,000 movie theaters across the country. However, Vineyard fans will have to wait to see the highly anticipated film version of the bestselling books – or travel off Island to catch a screening sooner. The Vineyard theaters often don’t have access to blockbuster films until after the initial buzz has died down somewhat.

“We would have loved to have had it. March and April are our slowest months,” said Bob La Sala, general manager of Edgartown’s Entertainment Cinemas (owned by Entertainment Management Corporation). “It’s just not as easy as people think. It’s not like we get a DVD.”

Mr. La Sala explains that he and Ben Hall Sr., who owns the three other movie theaters on the Island, work cooperatively in procuring films using individual off-Island film buyers.

And these film buyers can’t always get the more popular films on the day of release for theaters with limited numbers. The film distributors aren’t willing to give up any of the finite number of copies until they have maximized their profits through screenings at multiplexes and metropolitan theaters.

“They get a percentage of the box office,” explains Mr. La Sala. “If there’s a copy of ‘Hunger Games’ available, who’s going to get it — a theater that has 100,000 people around it, or a theater that has 15,000?”

Although Mr. La Sala points out that the Island theaters screened the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” movies on their opening weekends, copies are not always available right away. Often smaller theaters have to wait until the cineplexes that have multiple copies of a hot movie showing on more than one screen, cut down to one copy. “We waited three weeks to get a copy of ‘The Lorax’ [animated film released March 2].” In the case of “The Hunger Games,” part of the problem is that there are fewer copies out there than with many other blockbusters.

“With the smaller independent companies they don’t have the budget like Warner Brothers or Disney. Bigger companies can make 3,000 prints,” said Mr. La Sala. Similarly, he notes that the Island theaters have a hard time procuring art films, which often enjoy longer runs in theaters than Hollywood films. “There are so few around, no one will give them up.”

“In the summer we’re pretty much with the major cities,” said Mr. Hall, owner of the Capawock Theatre in Vineyard Haven and the Strand and the Island theaters in Oak Bluffs. “In the wintertime it’s harder. They know this market is limited. Prints cost thousand of dollars. They want to make it work.”

Furthermore, Vineyard theaters can’t always accommodate the requirements imposed by distributors. “Sometimes we have to pass on things because each distributor has their own rules and regulations and contractual obligations,” Mr. La Sala said. “Some have to play every day for a month. That reduces the chance of bringing other films over.” He added, “Even if it was the summertime we wouldn’t survive if we had to show the same movie all month. I think the variety is better for everyone.”

Mr. Hall related a story concerning the 1972 film “The Godfather.” The distributors insisted that the film run for seven days in one theater. Mr. Hall complied, showing the film in Oak Bluffs but, as he said, “That’s not the best way to play a movie on the Vineyard. We try to circulate the film so it gets to be shown in every town.” Eventually the movie moved to the other local theaters and, “They [the distributors] saw that the percentage was much better when we moved it around and they never insisted on it again.”

Many theaters have switched over to a digital format and that has further limited the Island theaters’ access to new films. “A lot of them [distributors] are cutting back on 35 mm prints and going more to digital,” Mr. La Sala said.

Although Mr. Hall purchased digital equipment a few years ago in order to offer high definition screenings of operas at the Capawock, his system is not up to the standards of most of the movie distributors. He also no longer has access to the Metropolitan opera films. “They cut out many of the independent theaters,” he said.

“The major distributors aren’t willing to allow independent theaters with small screens like ours to screen digitally,” Mr. Hall said. “Other theaters made huge investments and they have to recoup that investment. I’d be willing to upgrade if the investment wasn’t so heavy.” He notes that even the entry-level systems cost between $75,000 and $100,000.

Vineyarders, however, enjoy one real advantage to off-Island movie-goers. Ticket prices here are lower than they are in many markets – $9 as opposed to $10.50 or $11 in Boston and on the Cape, and up to $16 in New York City, and both local theaters offer $6 nights in the off season.

“I think we do pretty good considering what it costs off-Island,” said Mr. Hall.

As for the fans hungry for “The Hunger Games,” Mr. Hall said, “People have been asking me for that movie for months. Of course we’re going to play it. The distributor is one we deal with regularly.”