More theater options in Clark County coming soon

New Cinetopia, return of Kiggins, Liberty will cheer movie fans

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 

From high class to low cost, Clark County’s movie-going options will expand this year.

Twenty-six silver screens are expected to open here in 2011. Two historic venues, the two-screen Liberty Theatre in Camas and the single-screen Kiggins Theater in downtown Vancouver, will re-open. And luxury-theater operator Cinetopia plans to open a 23-screen venue at Westfield Vancouver mall in November.

If you go

What: Liberty Theatre grand opening.

When: 6 p.m. March 17, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”; 6 p.m. March 18, “Grease Sing-A-Long”; 4-10 p.m. March 19, benefit concert for Camas school music programs and the Downtown Camas Association.

Where: Liberty Theatre, 315 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas.

Cost: $2 admission for the movies; $5 for the benefit concert.

Information: Liberty Theater's website.

Combined, that’s about 45 percent more movie-going opportunities for Clark County residents, who have a lot of options vying for their limited entertainment dollars. The expansion comes on the heels of a tough year for the theater industry. Nationwide ticket sales in 2010 were down 5 percent from the previous year.

Whether these new theaters thrive depends on more than movies. Theater operators know they have to offer something special to draw viewers.

“The out-of-home leisure experience is still one that people desire,” said Bruce Austin, a communications professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who has conducted research on movie audiences. “What you’re buying is an experience.”

For some, the movie itself is enough, and Clark County has plenty of complexes offering the typical popcorn experience. Regal Cinemas has 49 screens in Clark County, and Vancouver businessman Elie Kassab owns the eight-screen Battle Ground Cinemas. Moviegoers choose where to go based on film selection, show times and proximity. Price is a factor, too. All tickets are $3 at Regal’s Vancouver Plaza 10, the only of its complexes in Clark County that doesn’t have RealD 3-D technology.

Cinetopia, which has an eight-screen complex in east Vancouver, has staked out the high end of the market. Ticket prices for its leather-chair-appointed living-room venue range from $13.50 to $15.50. Its box-office sales climbed by 32 percent in 2010, even as the industry’s sales dipped, Cinetopia owner Rudyard Coltman said.

“The movie-going audience in Vancouver is still really large right now,” Coltman said. He hopes to capture more of that audience with an $18 million, 23-screen complex at Westfield Vancouver mall that will include three theaters with a 65-foot-wide screen and one with an 80-foot screen.

“We offer people something they can’t get anywhere else: the finest comfort, the finest technology and the finest dining,” Coltman said. “We offer a presentation far better than what they could get at home — a resolution two times Blue-ray. Our model is the 21st century reality of movie exhibition: You have to give people more.”

While Cinetopia strives for more, the historic theaters are angling for less. The two historic theaters set to re-open this year will have lower ticket prices and fewer film selections.

The Liberty Theatre in Camas, a historic venue closed since 2009, will make its comeback this month. For its grand opening, the Liberty Theatre will play the 1959 classic “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” on March 17, followed by “Grease Sing-A-Long” on March 18.

“People seem to love this theater a lot. They’ve missed it,” said the new operator, Rand Thornsley of Rootstalk Capital Management LLC. “But small-town single-screen theaters, unless you can find a niche to make them happen, they’re tough to operate.”

Thornsley directs programming for the Bear Tooth Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska, and plans to borrow elements that have worked there. At first, Liberty Theatre will sell popcorn and other snacks, but it will eventually add beer, wine and hot food. Admission at Liberty, except for special engagements, will be $3.50. The theater, which has one large screen and one small, will offer a variety of movies at different times of the day and week in hopes of reaching people of all ages and interests.

“By charging less, we wait a long time for movies, but we don’t have to run them as long,” Thornsley said. “With the right circumstances, we’re pretty confident we can make this work.”

Bill Leigh hopes to be able to do the same for the Kiggins, a landmark theater that opened in 1936. When Leigh bought the building in 2008, another company was operating the theater. Unable to make the rent, the company shut down. Now Leigh finds himself reluctantly in the movie theater business.

“I don’t want to be the operator,” Leigh said. “I’m going to do that out of default.”

As he figures, “Every single-screen (theater) has to have a gimmick, and the gimmick is going to be beer and pizza and a bar. I believe that’s the only way I can make it work.”

He has committed to hosting an international film festival in August, so he hopes to have the theater ready by then. He’s collaborating with a group of volunteers who are forming a nonprofit group. Seanette Corkill, a retail business consultant who has spearheaded the effort, said volunteers have worked 200 hours on renovating the theater. In return, Leigh will give the nonprofit group periodic use of the theater.

The low-priced historic venue and the high-priced movie-and-dining multiplex each has its limits, said Austin, the industry expert.

“You’re asking people to come to an older building that maybe — we hope — has projection technology to match any other theater, and soak up the atmosphere as compensation for whatever’s on the screen. I admire the entrepreneur who wants to engage in that, but it’s very difficult,” Austin said. “How many times do I want to pay for that experience?” And at the other extreme, “How many times do I want to pay for the $60 to $70 movie experience? I think there’s probably a ceiling to it.”

Even so, he added, “I don’t think for a moment that movies and movie theaters are going to disappear.”

On that point, he and the theater operators agreed.

“People want to get out of the house. They want to go on a date, and smell the popcorn and cry with other people and laugh with other people,” Kassab said. “People want the movie-going experience.”