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Ann Arbor's vanishing screens: Why there are no multiplexes near the 'U'

BY LILA KALICK
Daily Arts Writer
Published December 1, 2010

Correction: This story originally stated that Fifth Quarter occupies the space once held by The Majestic. It actually occupies the space once held by a theater specializing in foreign films.

Well, Saturday night at eight o’clock
I know where I'm gonna go.
I’m a gonna pick my baby up
And take her to the picture show.
Everybody in the neighborhood
Is dressing up to be there too.
And we’re gonna have a ball,
Just like we always do.

So Motown sensation the Drifters crooned in the song “Saturday Night at the Movies” way back in 1964. It’s a Saturday night in 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You are not going to the movies. You can’t get to the movies. You have no car and it’s two degrees outside, so you don’t want to walk to the bus.

LSA senior Ali Phillips recalls being stranded her freshman year with a group of friends at Rave Cinemas in Ypsilanti. Her group had decided to take the bus to Meijer to go Christmas shopping and then walked the short distance to the theater to catch a quick flick.

“When we got out of the movies at nine o’clock, we didn’t realize the buses closed so early,” she said. “We had to call a cab.”

The two movie theaters closest to campus, the Michigan and the State, show mainly independent, classic or foreign films. In order to see a blockbuster, students must drive or take the bus to either Rave or the Goodrich Quality 16 on Jackson Road. But it wasn’t always this way.

The golden years of A2 movie houses

“It involves a little of history,” said LSA Lecturer Jonathan Marwil of Ann Arbor's movie theaters, the author of "A History of Ann Arbor," among other works.

Marwil said that back in the WWII era, at least 80 million Americans out of 150 million went to the movies once a week.

"Movies were a primary and inexpensive form of entertainment,” he said.

At that time, Ann Arbor was teeming with movie theaters. Two theaters on Main Street, the Wuerth and the Orpheum, were open in addition to the Michigan and the State. By the end of the 1940s, the Wuerth and the Orpheum had closed. The buildings they occupied on the 300 block of Main Street now house the restaurants Gratzi and The Chop House. Where the Maynard Street parking structure now stands, there used to be the Majestic, a grand movie palace fashioned out of the skeleton of a roller rink. The Majestic closed in 1942. Fifth Quarter nightclub occupies a space left empty by a theater that specialized in foreign films.

Relatively more recently, South University was home to yet another movie theater, the Campus. Built in the 1950s, the Campus continued to show first-run Hollywood films until it closed in 1987. A strip mall replaced it.

“Ann Arbor used to be one of half a dozen most important towns in the country to see film,” Marwil said. “Robert Altman came here several times to show his films. He didn’t go to Toledo. … He didn’t go to Princeton or Northwestern. He came to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor had this reputation deserved of a serious interest in film.”

Michigan’s central campus once housed a strong collection of student film societies, which reached their heights in the 1960s and ’70s. One such group was the Cinema Guild, which showed old movies and foreign films in the lecture halls.

“They were cheaper,” Marwil said. “You would never see an old film at any one of the main theaters.”

Film societies still exist today on campus. Most prominent is M-Flicks, which sporadically screens movies. But these groups are nowhere near as popular or relevant as they were back in their heydays.

At one point, the abundance of Ann Arbor film societies meant that you could see a movie any night of the week at the Modern Languages Building, Angell Hall or the Natural Science Building. Marwil, who attended graduate school at the University in the late ’60s, recalls how the whole business of student film societies worked.

“For them, to rent the prints wasn’t very expensive for either foreign or older films,” he said.

According to Marwil, the business of student film societies began to collapse in the late ’70s.

“The ’60s and notably the ’70s is the high point of interest in this country in film. Then it begins to die and it’s been dead for a long time,” Marwil said.

So what happened? How did Ann Arbor go from a cinema boomtown to a relative movie theater desert?

Marwil cites a general indifference among young people toward film. Around the end of the 1970s when the hype around the film societies had died down, the big theaters on the periphery had already come into being.

“They were getting the movies. People who wanted go to the movies had cars,” he said. “The Campus went on showing first-run movies, but what did the students do?"

"They did the same thing they did to Shaman Drum," he said, referencing the independent bookstore on State Street that closed in 2009. "They didn’t go.”

Marwil said the current student generation is relatively apathetic toward film. The rise of television, home video and ultimately our use of computers has removed the important function movie theaters once played in our lives, he claimed.

So the movies moved out. They fled toward the outskirts of town, where the land is cheaper.

Flight of the first-run films

Still, the lack of options and big feature films close to campus raises questions. There are two movie theaters right next to campus. Why can’t students see the big titles there?

Louis Dickinson, the State Theater manager and Michigan Theater front of house coordinator, said that part of the reason the State and the Michigan don’t show first-run Hollywood films is due to capacity. The two local theaters don’t have enough screens to make showing big Hollywood films like “The Dark Knight,” “The Town” or “The Social Network” attractive to distributors, and the promise of a certain number of screens on which to play the film is necessary to make a venture profitable.

“ ‘Jaws’ is what changed movie theaters,” Dickinson said. Before the release of the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster, “you could be a small one-screen theater. You could have an engagement of a film for a week. You could make a pretty good return on it. And you could change out another film after that week was over.”

According to Dickinson, “Jaws” was the first film for which distributors required theaters to show a film a certain number of times on a fixed number of screens. Once the film clamped down contractually, its model started to surface for all first-run Hollywood films.

Both the Michigan and the State have only two screens, modest next to the monster screen capacity of Quality 16 or Rave.

LSA senior Amanda Seppala doesn’t feel miffed about the lack of first-run films at the State and Michigan.

“It makes sense that the State and the Michigan allocate resources to movies people wouldn’t necessarily see,” Seppala said. “I feel more disenfranchised about the loss of the dollar theater at the (Briarwood) mall (this past summer).”

LSA freshman Adam Berkovec agrees.

“I know that the movies at the State and the Michigan aren’t mainstream movies, and it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It would suck if I didn’t have friends with cars.”

In terms of whether he feels the Michigan and State ought to show big blockbuster films, Berkovec said, “It might be beneficial to them. But it’s also cool that they don’t show movies you can see anywhere else.”

The film selections of the Michigan and the State are also based on ideology. The Michigan is committed to bringing films to Ann Arbor that wouldn’t normally get such a big run.

In 1979, the Michigan Theater was in danger of being torn down, and the Michigan Theater Historic Trust was established to save the theater. Since then, the Michigan has been a nonprofit whose central mission was at first live theater and music before transitioning to movies in the late ’80s.

“The Michigan sets the trend for a certain demographic,” Dickinson asserted. “I know that we show films that wouldn’t really fly at the other two theaters. The hope is that someone might come and see a film here that they might not necessarily seek out.”

Despite a trend toward independent, foreign and shorter-run films, the Michigan has shown its share of mainstream blockbusters. Pixar’s “Up” played there in 2009 and was the first movie to use the theater’s Sony 4K projection system. The Sony 4K projector at the Michigan is the most powerful 3-D projector in the state.

“ ‘Up’ was the flagship movie — we had to show it,” said Dickenson.

Oddly, the projector has only been used for one project since “Up”: “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” It flopped. Dickinson said that the film just didn’t work for their audience.

“We were able to market ("Up") because it’s a Pixar — top-of-the-line 3-D computer animation," he said. "It fits into the art house mentality. Pixar films are gorgeous.”

In order to get “Up” from its distributor, the Michigan had to open at nine in the morning and show seven screenings each day until the theater closed at midnight.

LSA senior Courtney Rabideau said that she sees a movie about once every three weeks. When she does, she isn’t upset about them not being first-run Hollywood films.

“Ann Arbor prides itself on being a vehicle, a platform for older and independent movies. It is a point of pride for Ann Arbor,” she said. “You can’t see movies you can see anywhere else, because Ann Arbor isn’t anywhere else.”

Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Erin Mernoff said, “It would be more convenient if the theaters showed big movies,” but added, “I like that they show the independent films because most theaters don’t mention them.”

LSA senior Noah Stahl, a concentrator in the Screen Arts and Cultures program and a former writer for The Michigan Daily, values the unique experience he gets from seeing films at the Michigan and the State.

“Whenever I sit down in the Michigan Theater, I have to take a moment to appreciate this jewel. It’s like walking into a time capsule,” he said.

Stahl too enjoys the “grungy ’70s feel” of the State and claimed the experience “takes you out of Ann Arbor.”

He assumes that people would find it annoying to have to drive out to Carpenter or Jackson to see a film, but there is “something unique about having small independently oriented theaters” here in town. Stahl’s bottom line: “Both places — the Michigan and the State — have a ton of personality. More than any of these multiplexes.”

Despite the trial she faced attempting to see a mainstream movie her freshman year, Phillips doesn’t feel that the role of the Michigan and the State theaters should change. The films they play, she said, “give (the theaters) a different atmosphere. If they showed blockbusters, they’d be more institutional or commercial.” However, she admitted to never having seen a film in either theater in all of her time at Michigan.

In any event, the role of the Michigan and the State theaters doesn’t stand to change any time in the near future. For now at least, most of those in student neighborhoods will continue to spend Saturday night in Ann Arbor having a ball somewhere else besides the movies.


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