December 1, 2005

Theater Owners Question New Cinema Plans

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Despite collecting nearly 2,600 signatures on a petition in opposition to the proposed downtown multiplex, members of 7th Art, the nonprofit corporation that manages the Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Pictures theaters, have admitted that they may soon be operating in a very crowded field.

The organization has been outspoken and critical of the plan for 12 new screens in such close proximity to their own five since it was first announced. Concern has been heightened with the impending expansion at the Pyramid Mall’s Regal Cinemas, which will grow from 10 to 14 screens by fall 2006.

The 7th Art petition, which started this summer, states that the undersigned “want to preserve what is good about downtown Ithaca” and “support Cinemapolis and Fall Creek Pictures in their misgivings about the proposed multiplex.”

Jodi Cohen, a professor at Ithaca College and current chair of the 7th Art board, said she and the rest of the board do not believe the community can support 31 screens in a five-mile radius.

“We feel very strongly that there is no need for these theaters in Ithaca,” she said. “They just aren’t viable.”

Cohen explained that with the expanded Regal theater and 12 new screens downtown, the market would grow too congested for healthy competition.

“How many movies are out there that are worth seeing?” she asked.

Because 26 screens would be vying for the same blockbusters, she said, it is likely that one theater will begin to play “crossover” films. Those are commercially successful art films, like this summer’s March of the Penguins or last year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

According to the 7th Art website, 60 percent of the Fall Creek and Cinemapolis revenues come from those kinds of movies even though they make up just a small fraction of the 90 films shown annually. Cohen is concerned that if either multiplex began playing those movies, the art theaters would not be able to survive.

Jim Duffy, CEO of American Screen Works Inc., the company that will likely operate the new theater, has offered to adhere to a non-competition agreement to ensure the sustained success of the art theaters. This agreement, which was announced in July, guarantees that the downtown multiplex would not play art films that would normally be screened at Fall Creek or Cinemapolis.

Duffy’s offer also included advertising for the independent theaters and previews of films being shown on 7th Art’s screens.

Lynne Cohen, one of the executive directors of 7th Art (and of no relation to Jodi), showed cautious optimism about this deal.

The agreement “is being explored,” she said. While it looks nice in a press release, Lynne Cohen explained, “the next step is to find out if they’re really willing to do it.”

Even if American Screen Works complies with the agreement, Jodi Cohen said, the art theaters will still be vulnerable to direct competition from the soon-to-be-expanded Regal theater.

The 14 screens, which will break ground in the old Ames location this winter, will offer stadium seating and digital surround sound, according to Pyramid Mall manager Jim Tull.

Despite its inability to stop plans for the new multiplex, Lynne Cohen emphatically insists the petition was not a failure. The goal, she said, was to “make sure that the Common Council knew how many people valued Cinemapolis and Fall Creek” so they would “pay close attention to how we felt.”

She said the petition helped city officials “understand that Cinemapolis and Fall Creek were valuable to the whole community.”

Jodi Cohen agreed about the partial success of the petition, saying that discussion “definitely opened up” between proponents and critics of the theater after the petition was publicized.

The petition will remain at the two theaters and on the Cinemapolis website “as a way for the community to express itself,” Lynne Cohen said.

Although city officials approved of the theater and other aspects of the Cayuga Green plan (which includes retail and office space and housing) in September, the decision to go forward with the theater is not yet final.

Developers are waiting for the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency to decide whether they will grant tax abatement for part of the project.

Common Council member Gayraud Townsend ’05 (D-4th Ward) said the final decision “will be made hopefully in the next month or two.”

In the meantime, Cinemapolis and Fall Creek are gearing up for a spring fundraising campaign to keep interest in the theaters high.

“We need to be looking our best even if the downtown multiplex doesn’t materialize,” Lynne Cohen said.

The Cinemapolis website states that the possible closure of the art theaters as a result of the multiplex “would mean the loss of film diversity, as well as the public education and civic dialogue events that currently characterize Ithaca’s downtown film culture.”

Townsend, who supports the new multiplex, expressed interest in seeing the art theaters survive and believes Duffy’s non-competition agreement will protect Cinemapolis and Fall Creek.

“They’re an important and critical part of who Ithaca is,” he said.

Jodi Cohen said movie-goers, not just politicians, must continue to recognize the special role the theaters play.

“We hope we have a loyal enough following that we can stay in the community,” she said.

Archived article by Melissa Korn
Sun Senior Editor