Screening New Heights

The ambitious Heights Theatre stretches to bring upscale cinema to an audience outside of Uptown

As a youngish mom and her three kids proceed past the box office, a preteen daughter points to the pair of hunks on the Relax poster and exclaims, "Mom, these boys are gay!" (Mom quickly changes the subject.) A pair of senior-age women comes in chatting about talk shows; a young, intellectual-looking couple excitedly notes a taped-up flyer announcing a new library in town; an assistant art-film curator stops by to check out the competition; and a teenage boy saunters in asking to use the bathroom. By the time Letness threads up a pre-feature Laurel and Hardy short at 7:20, about 15 folks have hunkered down for the show.

"This crowd is pretty typical," says Letness, who's responsible tonight for selling tickets and concessions; answering the office phone; projecting the movie; booking a June 6 screening of a Telugu-language movie called Premamte Idera (This Is Love); and chatting up the press. "So far our audience has been pretty diverse--a mix of seniors, families with kids, and people from St. Paul who don't want to drive all the way to Uptown. We also have a core audience of about 20 or 25 people in the neighborhood who come to see everything we show." Letness, a 38-year-old John Malkovich look-alike who graduated from MCAD with a film degree, doesn't abide by the unproven theory that there aren't enough art-movie fans in the near-Northeast suburbs. He argues that the area has attracted a younger and more sophisticated population in recent years, and that the video boom has surprisingly helped to stimulate the audience's interest in non-Hollywood fare.

But another question might be how the Heights has managed to book its artful roster in the first place, given the well-established tradition of mini-major film companies granting exclusive runs of their wares to Uptown theaters. "The only reason distributors let us have this stuff is that we're far enough away [from Uptown]," says Letness, who interprets the unfulfilled promise of the Reading Cinemas' St. Anthony Main theater as being a function of its relative proximity to Landmark Theatres' Lagoon Cinema and Uptown Theatre.

Reel optimist: Heights Theatre co-owner Dave Holmgren
David Kern
Reel optimist: Heights Theatre co-owner Dave Holmgren

The 30-year-old Holmgren, however, attributes the Heights' success in snaring titles to an ironic phenomenon whereby the rise of suburban gigaplexes has created the need for a wide variety of product; Cookie's, for instance, is also playing at the Lakeville 18. In turn, this has helped a bit to loosen the iron-clad grip that chain-owned art houses have held on the specialty-film market. Nevertheless, the two partners agree that the Heights (whose film bookings are assisted by an agency in Florida) doesn't really pose a threat to Landmark. "We're like a little fly buzzing around their head," says Letness. "We're not here to compete with them. But I think we offer an appealing alternative to people who don't want to go over there for whatever reason. Basically, I'd say our audience consists of people who are educated and affluent, but not elitist. They don't want to pay for parking, they don't want to go to a multiplex, and they don't want to pay seven dollars for a movie." (The Heights charges five dollars.) "And besides," Holmgren says, "there's enough [art-film product] to go around."

As some of that product is precious to the proprietors, the Heights seems to thrive on the joy of sharing it with the neighborhood audience, giving them something they wouldn't otherwise have. "Little Voice is a film we played that I hated to take off the platter," Letness says. "I adored that movie. I wanted to stand outside the theater with a bullhorn and tell people, 'You have to see this movie--it'll change your life!' There are some films like that, films that are like family--we love them that much. I can be in a crappy mood and then I'll see a great movie and suddenly I'm all better."

Favorites aside, Holmgren and Letness sometimes seem more attached to the projection equipment, talking up the vintage virtues of Cinemascope lenses, RCA Photofone sound, and the Todd-AO system that projects 30 frames per second as opposed to the standard 24. Before owning the theater, the pair used to work as antique dealers of movie-theater hardware, traveling to Midwestern cinemas that were about to close and offering to purchase old-but-reliable machinery for cheap. (One such acquisition--a 1936 Simplex projector that might be mistaken for a train engine--sits on display in the lobby and supplies a reverent, museum-of-the-moving-image sort of vibe.) On the day I visit, Letness throws on a beloved Technicolor clip from the 1951 Betty Grable musical Call Me Mister. And as the star makes like a "geisha" singing, "Gee, I wish I had a G.I.," Holmgren, sitting in the empty theater, nearly seems to swoon. For now, at least, the new Heights has won over its audience.

 

The Heights Theatre hosts the "Minnesota Film Festival" in conjunction with Art-a-Whirl on Wednesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m.; (612) 788-9079.

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