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Feb. 23, 2020

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Kiggins, Liberty theaters strive for creativity

Events, alternative movies project success for Clark County theaters

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Published:
6 Photos
Paul Olson with Wager Audio operates the Kiggins' new 48-channel soundboard, which was contributed by Crown and Anchor Church, during a recent live performance of radio play "In Flight with D.B. Cooper." Doing sound for the Kiggins is pretty straightforward, he said, until those radio dramatists need a strange sound effect. (The Columbian files)
Paul Olson with Wager Audio operates the Kiggins' new 48-channel soundboard, which was contributed by Crown and Anchor Church, during a recent live performance of radio play "In Flight with D.B. Cooper." Doing sound for the Kiggins is pretty straightforward, he said, until those radio dramatists need a strange sound effect. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

In his heart, Dan Wyatt remains “a kid in a movie theater, transported to other worlds and other times,” he said. Unlike most movie-loving kids, Wyatt owns his own cinema, the independent Kiggins Theatre, which he bought in 2012.

Now, the former film student and current downtown businessman struggles to maintain a steady stream of cinematic escapes to other worlds and times. Thanks partly to the explosion of streaming services and the recent merger of Disney and 20th Century Fox, the movie-distribution business constantly grows more complex and restrictive — and so do Wyatt’s efforts to guesstimate what audiences really want. It’s often different from what they say they want, he’s found.

What they do reliably turn up for is what Wyatt never intended to provide at the Kiggins: music, talk shows, “Science on Tap” lectures, stand-up comedy, local radio-drama productions and other live happenings.

“Some of our biggest successes are live events. The science and the comedy — they are frequently sellouts,” he said. “My cognitive dissonance just keeps increasing. I got into this business because I want to screen films, but I’m also very community oriented. I like to be creative. I like to produce events.”

Wyatt is used to waving off queries about making the 340-seat Kiggins, which has no permanent stage, no backstage and little storage, into a real concert hall or event facility. That’s never going to happen, he said.

Five film flavors for Vancouver

Kiggins Theatre owner Dan Wyatt has spent years chasing local moviegoer tastes and a formula for ticket-selling success.
“I’ll try anything once,” he said. “You never know what will score, and when you think you know, you’re wrong.”
Fortunately, he said, moviegoers reliably swamp the Kiggins when any of these five genres are screening.
• Outdoor-adventure films, like “Free Solo” and the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival. “When they can’t go do it, they want to sit inside and have a beer and watch others go do it,” Wyatt said.
• Animal films, like “Harry and Snowman” and “Buddy.” “This is such a doggy community,” Wyatt said.
• Literary films, like “Worlds of Ursula LeGuin” and “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” “Vancouver is well-read. It’s a real book-clubby town,” he said.
• Music and concert films, like “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” the Kiggins’ highest-grossing film ever and a total surprise, Wyatt said.
• Anime adventures, like “Napping Princess” and “Hunter X Hunter” — but Wyatt wonders if this market is oversaturated. “People used to travel from all over for anime, but I think that’s waning,” he said.
— Scott Hewitt

But Crown and Anchor Church, which rents adjacent community and office space from Wyatt, holds a rocking service in the theater every Sunday and has contributed a new sound system, a tech booth and a modular stage that’s 24 feet wide, 12 feet deep and “less squeaky than the old one,” Wyatt said.

Those infrastructure additions continue to leverage the Kiggins’ split personality as both movie theater and performance space. The night before Thanksgiving, voice actors and a sound-effects specialist with Metropolitan Performing Arts staged a radio-drama version of a signature local legend: D.B. Cooper’s 1972 hijacking adventure in the skies over Vancouver. Wyatt himself penned the original script and starred as a shady, grim Cooper during the live performance.

Further leveraging live events at the Kiggins will be the theater’s eventual expansion to the south. Wyatt means to add a second, smaller screening room in that adjacent space, providing needed flexibility for simultaneous film screenings and live happenings. Crown and Anchor will move downstairs, he said.

Kiggins programming director Richard Beer, who works for several independent cinemas in the area, said the Kiggins’ stretch to straddle live performance and movie screenings is unique. “I don’t know another venue, anywhere, that’s trying to do what we’re trying to do,” Beer said.

The vault and the law

Thanksgiving likely marked the final Kiggins holiday screenings of the comedy-fantasy “The Princess Bride,” Wyatt said. Also unlikely to appear on the Kiggins’ screen again after this year are “Home Alone,” “Die Hard,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the “Harry Potter” series, “Alien” and many more so-called “repertory” favorites.

That’s the direct result of an industry megamerger and the explosion of streaming services, Wyatt and Beer said. In its latest moves to dominate the media world, Disney spent $73.1 billion this year to buy sister studio 21st Century Fox, the owner of many of those old and not-so-old reliables, and launched its own streaming service, Disney Plus.

Disney is infamous for never letting its own back catalog out of its proverbial “vault,” which is why you’ll rarely see “Fantasia” or “Pinocchio” or the original “Aladdin” revived on big screens. Now, new acquisition Fox appears to be following the same policy. Since the merger, Beer said, hundreds of Fox films have disappeared from the movie-distribution landscape where he goes hunting.

“I don’t think the media landscape has been this chaotic since the advent of TV,” Beer said. “This merger has been one of the most disruptive things I’ve ever seen in the business. Many of our most popular titles are under threat.”

Beer said he feels lucky to have grabbed one final “Princess Bride” run at the Kiggins. When he tried for a “Planet of the Apes” movie festival, he said, the answer was no.

“I reached out to people I know at Fox,” Beer said. “We can’t book any of these titles now.”

12 Photos
Richard Beer, programming director at the Kiggins Theatre, staffs the box office for a live performance of "In Flight with D.B. Cooper," an original radio play. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
Kiggins Theater, Liberty Theater Photo Gallery

Streaming services have pulled the rug out from under cinemas in other ways too, Beer and Wyatt noted. Netflix has been known to release a new film in theaters for all of one week — just so it can qualify for Academy Awards — before it goes straight to streaming.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has come out in support of removing a long-standing legal barrier that will allow Hollywood greater control over movie theaters. Without the so-called “Paramount Consent Decrees,” which became law in 1948, Hollywood may be able to force cinemas to accept films in bundles, demand higher ticket prices and dictate screening minutia, like how many times per day a given film must play and how long its overall run must be.

Random rules, turnout

The Disney-Fox merger has already brought similar pressures to bear. When “The Princess Bride” screened over Thanksgiving weekend, nighttime shows were allowed but afternoon matinees forbidden. Wyatt said he cannot fathom the logic behind such a restriction on a beloved, all-ages film.

“Why are you telling us how to screen? Just give us the movie,” he said. “We know what to do with it. We know our community.”

New films come with challenges too: they’re often only available if you commit your theater to “the formula of seven days and a clean schedule,” Wyatt said — meaning, no interruptions for any other films or events. That’s not how the Kiggins stays afloat, he said. “It takes us out of the running for a lot of films, because we can’t commit to that clean schedule,” he said.

Downtown’s Regal City Center occasionally screens offbeat or independent films, but it only drew trickles of viewers to two recent, celebrated ones: the Chinese-American family dramedy “The Farewell” and the Mister Rogers documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The Kiggins sold many more tickets to those, despite fewer screenings overall, Wyatt said.

“They don’t know how to market those movies,” he said, while Kiggins programmer Beer “makes magic with a better, retail style of marketing.”

When Beer reached out to the local horse community about an equestrian documentary called “Harry and Snowman,” they came galloping to the Kiggins to see it. “That’s what we can do that Regal is just not going to do,” Beer said.

But audiences remain fickle. Since monthly “Noir Nights” screenings have done well for several years, Wyatt and Beer tried duplicating that success this year with classic westerns on “Saddle Up Sundays.”

“It’s not working. I have no idea why. Film noir still packs ’em in,” Beer said. “Vancouver is the strangest market I’ve ever worked in.”

Everybody, everything

Over in Camas, Liberty Theatre owner Rand Thornsley is sticking with a different formula. Live performance is not part of the picture there. Loading up the Liberty’s dual screens with diverse programming — from superhero blockbusters to obscure independents — is what works, he said.

“We try to show everybody everything, starting with all the mainstream features” for east county residents who have no other big-screen options he said.

But the Liberty also specializes in documentaries, concert films and fine-arts streams that can’t be found anywhere else. It’s taken about a decade, Thornsley said, but the Liberty has made a name as a destination for art-house fans willing to travel across the region.

“I’m doing stuff that they’re not even doing in Portland,” Thornsley said. “I think alternative programming has brought us some recognition.”

Some of that programming is aimed directly at culture vultures of a certain age. The Liberty specializes in streaming London theater performances, Paris museum exhibitions and Moscow ballet performances. Fine-arts lovers are so steady and loyal, Thornsley said, they frequently rush to purchase advance tickets and reserve their favorite seats.

“The clientele is not huge, but very appreciative,” Thornsley said. Nobody pauses over premium ticket prices as high as $18.50 for those programs, he said, and many who come from Portland or beyond add in local sightseeing and dinner for a quaintly Camas experience, he said.

Thornsley stays awfully busy keeping the Liberty’s two screens busy, he said. He feels less like a kid yearning for magical escape than a computer scientist racing to keep up with changing technology, he said.

Movies used to come in big reels destined for a big film projector, he said, but now — depending on the type of program and the way it was recorded — Thornsley has to accommodate thumb drives and internet downloads that require “millions of gigabytes in storage,” he said.

“I created this wonderful machine and it’s turned into a butt kicker,” he said.

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