The Last Picture Show

Last March, Bill Carter accepted what he figured would be a short-term gig at the St. Anthony Main Theater, a five-screen venue located just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. At the time, Reading Cinemas--the theater's lease holder since 1998 (and the corporate progeny of the Reading Railroad of Monopoly fame)--was looking for someone to whip the long-struggling operation into shape.

Given St. Anthony Main's notoriety for poor quality control, Carter seemed an ideal pick for the job. The 37-year-old former television news producer had developed an intense interest in film equipment in childhood, and over the years had acquired both a vast collection of projectors and considerable knowledge in the esoteric business of their maintenance.

So it wasn't surprising that after a few weeks of technical troubleshooting, Reading offered Carter a full-time job as the theater's manager. But while Carter managed to put the pictures on the screen back in focus, St. Anthony Main continued to struggle at the gate.

Like many smaller and older venues, the theater was facing increasingly stiff competition from the glut of megaplexes that sprang up in the late '90s. Both locally and nationally, the overbuilding of theaters led to a financial crisis in the industry. Two years ago, it got so bad that 12 major operators were filing for bankruptcy protection. Some went belly up. Others emerged from Chapter 11 only after eliminating unprofitable venues. Theaters like St. Anthony Main were often the first to be shuttered in the fallout.

With the opening of the 15-screen Crown Theatres at downtown's Block E this fall, the prognosis looked increasingly bleak for St. Anthony Main. But when Carter learned that Reading was preparing to bail on its lease, he decided he wanted to take a whack at reviving the operation. He also knew he would need help, so in short order he lined up two ready partners: Irv Braverman, a longtime film-exhibition industry veteran who ran the recently razed 65 Hi drive-in in Blaine, and John Rimarcik, the Minneapolis restaurant impresario who owns St. Anthony Main Theater.

After formally assuming control of the property on February 14, the partners will set about an ambitious plan to reinvent the theater. They'll still book mainstream first-run films but will also throw art films and independents into the mix. "I don't think there's ever been enough screens in this town for true independent films," Carter says. "There should be a place in this town where a guy who makes a movie but doesn't necessarily have a distributor can get it screened."

Carter also plans to use the theater for midnight screenings every Saturday of offbeat stuff, including some culled from his vast personal collection of "orphan" films--long forgotten exploitation and horror flicks. Some of his orphan films, Carter says, are the only known surviving prints.

"I started accumulating this stuff when I was about 10 years old, but over the last 10 years it has grown exponentially," he shrugs. "It's sort of a hobby that mutated horribly, and now it's got to pay for itself."

Will the new business plan fly? Jim McComb, a Minneapolis real estate analyst who has long tracked the theater business, is skeptical. As an industry, film exhibition is healthier now than it was during the spate of bankruptcies two years ago. But most industry insiders still believe there are more screens than the market can bear. As a rule of thumb, McComb says, an area can support one screen per 10,000 people. Two years ago, when he last analyzed the numbers, there were approximately 7,500 people per screen in the Twin Cities area.

"St. Anthony Main has always struggled, and I expect it will continue to struggle," McComb says, noting that most theatergoers have learned to insist on amenities like stadium seating and easy parking. When Reading took over in 1998, the company bigwigs figured the proximity to the University of Minnesota made the theater a natural as art house. That strategy was abandoned inside six months.

Others observers are more sanguine. "It's not going to be easy, but I think it's a good location that's only going to get better," says Tom Letness, co-owner of one of the Twin Cities' more successful independent venues, the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights, as well as the nearby Apache 6 Theatre. Letness points to the explosion of development in nearby Northeast.

The biggest factor in any theater's success, says Letness, is picking the right movies. Under the economics of today's movie business, exhibitors pay as much as 90 percent of their gate to the distributors the week a film opens. That figure drops on a sliding scale as time passes, so independent operators rely heavily on the sleepers that have sustained drawing power, films such as last year's My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

And that, says Irv Braverman, is precisely what he and Bill Carter plan on doing. "There's a lot of junk out there, and I don't think the previous operators were too particular about what they played. Well, we're going to be very particular."

For his part, Carter thinks the weakening of the big chains has created a niche for independents like him and his partners. "When the big guys lose a little bit of their muscle, it's easier for the little guys," he says.

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