Editorial / A Fairfield screenplay is searching for a hero
Published 6:20 pm, Thursday, September 22, 2011
If lucky, a newcomer to Fairfield gets his or her first glimpse of the Post Road / Unquowa Road intersection at night.
There on the northwest corner of the intersection -- lit up in white, blue and red -- is the movie marquis.
It casts its glow over the brick façade of a charming little theater and gives the street below a sense of vibrancy. No matter the lettering on the marquis, the scene says "Welcome back to small-town America."
But newcomers quickly can be absorbed into the everyday rhythms of a town. For longtime residents, what is special can gradually become commonplace.
Post and Unquowa are crossroads. And in the cold hard light of day, the Community Theatre now finds itself at a crossroads both literally and figuratively.
Nearly a decade after it was resurrected as a nonprofit, after hundreds of films have been screened and thousands of tickets torn in half, the theater will be dark this weekend, as it was last weekend.
Leo Redgate, the man who brought the movie house back to life in 2001 and has run it since, says he's at the end of the line. He will reopen the Community after limited renovations are finished, he says. But he won't keep it open much longer.
Somebody else -- or a group of somebody elses -- will have to take over, he says.
So Fairfield is about to find out whether the nonprofit Community Theatre was just a charming idea while it lasted or a true community theater -- one to which a white knight or posse of white knights will ride to the rescue.
Even with new operators, however, the Community faces a host of challenges.
As quaint as the two-screen cinema is and as close to restaurants and bars as it is, the theater has a lot of competition. Within less than 2½ miles are 18 movie screens -- 12 at the Showcase Cinemas just over the border in Bridgeport and another six at Fairfield Cinemas on Black Rock Turnpike.
But everybody loves going to the movies, right?
So why are fewer of us going?
Attendance at movie theaters in the U.S. and Canada has declined in eight of the last 10 years, according to Nash Information Services, which tracks box office information for the movie industry.
In the past eight years, the number of movie tickets sold has declined nearly 15 percent -- from 1.57 billion in 2002 to 1.34 billion last year.
During the same period, the Motion Picture Association of America reports, movie tickets sold as a percentage of the population has declined 21 percent.
For most of America, the causes are as simple as cost and convenience. Go no further than your cable remote and find scores of new releases the whole gang can watch for a fraction of what it would cost to buy tickets at the theater for a family or group of friends.
The convenience of not even leaving the couch already has killed all but the most specialized video rental shops.
Even Netflix says it expects to be operating fewer of its red kiosks next year.
If the Community Theatre is to live on, new operators will have those, and other financial hurdles to clear.
Redgate says it has cost $125,000 a year to operate the theater. That could change depending on the number and type of films shown, but far more importantly, on the cost of labor and maintenance. As a nonprofit, most of that has been volunteer.
Still, the theater had trouble paying its bills. Two film distributors -- Sony Pictures and Buena Vista Pictures -- filed lawsuits to get their money, although Redgate says they now have been paid.
If it is to survive, the Community will need both a niche and renewed commitment from its community to support it.
What that niche might be is unclear. It had failed as an art house when the Loew's chain closed it. But that was more than a decade ago. Classic films? Foreign films? Second runs? All of those?
Since the theater opened in 1920, silent damsels tied to railroad tracks have been rescued there; settlers have been rescued by the cavalry there; people have been rescued from a Towering Inferno there -- even from Jaws.
Let's hope somebody -- or a group of somebodies -- armed with a solid niche concept can arrive in the nick of time to rescue a gem that helps make Fairfield special.