Fade to White

Will the demise of the Skyway Theater spell the end for mainstream black film venues in the Twin Cities?

One hour to closing time at the Skyway Theater, and the red carpeted halls are nearly empty. A few sporadic bursts of gunfire from the latest Mel Gibson vehicle and the smell of popcorn wafting from the concession stand are the only clues that the theater is still open for business. The kid behind the counter is pitched over the glass case of Dots and Juji Fruits, looking exquisitely bored. He may be out of a job soon: Although he doesn't know it yet, the final curtain may be falling on the Skyway as soon as the end of the month.

Gary Friedman, theater services coordinator for Loews Cineplex, the national theater chain that owns the Skyway, has denied that a final decision has been reached, but Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Goodman confirms the imminent demise of downtown's last remaining cinema. After meeting with lawyers representing the co-owners of the theater's home on Hennepin Avenue two weeks ago, she asserted, "By the end of March, the Skyway will be gone." The theater's departure leaves the Cities with no regular venue for mainstream black film and the young crowds that traditionally turned out to watch it.

For people following recent trends in film exhibition, the news of the theater's closing came as no surprise. High rent and a dearth of available parking have caused theater chains to eschew downtown areas in favor of suburban locations. The Mall of America and recently opened megaplexes like the 18-screen Lakeville Theatre and the 16-screen theaters in Coon Rapids and Inver Grove Heights have steadily drawn ticket revenue away from smaller theaters, either driving them out of business or forcing them to specialize. When Loews executives visited the Twin Cities last week to discuss the future of the Skyway, they also addressed the future of two smaller suburban theaters: the Knollwood Theatre in St. Louis Park and the Westwind Plaza 3 in Minnetonka. According to Friedman, the fate of all three of the theaters remains undecided.

As potential moviegoers have drifted away from downtown, the Skyway has continued to focus on its core urban teenage audience. Last week, for instance, the theater was showing mainstream fare such as Payback, as well as eye candy like The Faculty and the race-themed American History X on its six screens. While Loews declined to discuss attendance or box-office take at any of its locations, Parkway Theatre manager Bill Irvine speculates that the Skyway's closing might stem from its failure to find a profitable niche. "It never really defined itself," he says. "With its predominantly black audience, they could have specialized, maybe showing the mainstream stuff and devoting one screen to real quality black film."

During the late '70s and early '80s, the Skyway was the city's preeminent mainstream venue, showing the premieres of films like Alien, E.T., and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in a huge balconied main theater featuring 70mm projection and Dolby Stereo. As theatergoers gravitated to the suburban megaplexes, the Skyway began to target its remaining audience and eventually became the primary venue for black film in the Twin Cities. According to dejunius hughes, founder and artistic director of the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival, the Skyway's programming explicitly targeted young, black theatergoers: "They keep films like He Got Game after they've disappeared from places like Maplewood, because there was an audience down there."

Nevertheless, he explains, the Skyway's programming ultimately scared away wider audiences. "They were marketing to the young hip hoppers who hang downtown," he says. "That's how the Skyway was looked upon: 'Don't go down there, there's nothing but black people.... This is where we'll contain them. We won't have to deal with them coming out to the Mall.'"

Hughes attributes the Skyway's decline to the management's failure to control audiences. "It became a very ugly place," he says. "The kind of films they show attracted the wrong kind of people. The young kids were so out of pocket....You'd want to say something, but nowadays you don't know who you're talking to. You can end up getting your brains blown out."

Along with increasing costs and faltering attendance, the Skyway developed a stigma as one of the more unsavory places in downtown Minneapolis; its location next to a topless bar, the Skyway Lounge, certainly didn't help. Occasional trouble with the police--including a 1991 drive-by shooting following a showing of Boyz N the Hood that left six people injured, and a fight during a preview of I Got the Hookup in which guns were reportedly drawn--also contributed to the pervasive perception that the Skyway is unsafe.

Lisa Goodman describes the theater as a blight on the area. "I live three blocks from downtown," she says, "and I wouldn't go to it. It's filthy. It doesn't seem like a clean or sanitary environment. I've never been in it, but the garbage on the sidewalk has led me to believe that it's not very well run."

Lost for the most part is the question of where people who actually entered the theater can now go to see mainstream black films like He Got Game, Rhyme & Reason, Blade, or Belly, which either played exclusively at the Skyway or were carried over there after disappearing from other area theaters. This question is complicated by the fact that the Skyway's closing and the future of downtown cinema is more than incidentally connected to the interminable Block E gentrification project. One of the anchor tenants of the new mall development proposed by Brookfield Management Services would be a 17- to 20-screen cineplex. Brookfield's Harold Brandt declined to name which theater chain might open on the blighted block; it will be at least three months before a final decision is made and considerably longer before downtown Minneapolis has a movie theater again. How a huge downtown theater complex will survive when so many smaller metro theaters are struggling to fill their seats is yet another piece of the elaborate Block E mystery.

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