When the City Paper met with Paul Brown, he was dressed in a short-sleeved, button-down shirt, khaki pants, and Converse sneakers. Had he still been residing in his former home in the Great White North of Canada, he'd probably be bundled in wool instead. Now, as of April 2, he's one of the new owners (along with his wife, Barbara Tranter) of the Terrace Theater on James Island. And he gets to wear sunglasses.
"When I got into the film business, I loved making movies as an independent filmmaker, but I was always frustrated, especially in the Canadian system and in the independent system, with exhibition," Brown says. When the couple travels the world to various film festivals, they have the chance to see what they consider to be amazing movies — but these films never make it to theaters. "(The system) is controlled by few, and it doesn't, to me, bring the best products that are out there."
It's actually a family business for Brown. His great-grandfather owned the first movie theater in Toronto, where Brown's grandmother played the piano for silent pictures. Both he and Tranter have been film and television producers for decades, and they also own the single-screen Aurora Theatre in East Aurora, N.Y. (a town outside of Buffalo with a population of 25,000 that is home to the corporate headquarters of Fisher-Price and Mattel). There, they screened mainly first-run family films.
But the couple wanted to move to a mid-sized, culturally aware city. When they visited Charleston previously, they fell in love with the area, the people, and especially its appreciation of the arts. And they discovered the Terrace, a theater that caters to a smart, educated niche film audience. So when they found out it was up for sale, they saw it as a "fateful collision," as Brown calls it.
Aurora served as a stepping stone to the Terrace, teaching the duo how to run an independent movie theater. Brown feels more confident taking on their new two-screen location. Now they have a different (i.e. older) clientele, more product to choose from, and less competition in neighboring theaters.
If you're worried about any drastic changes to the Terrace, don't bother. Brown and Tranter have no immediate plans to make revisions or additions, wanting to live with it for a little while and see how it goes. They're going to start on a learning curve; they'll figure out how the theater functions and stick with what works. They like the atmosphere that Furlinger created at the Terrace, Tranter says. They're also looking to continue the Charleston Film Festival, which had its first run last month.
The concessions (including all the types of beer and wine) will stay. They'll continue to counter program the multiplexes (with the exception of the occasional high-quality studio film), choosing pictures that will appeal to their core audience, but also challenge them. The couple and their bookers travel to festivals, attend conferences and conventions, and read industry publications, all in the search for the best movies. They have direct access to the organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival (where Slumdog Millionare and Ray premiered).
Brown says they don't mind if the films they play cause controversy or discussion. They have a motto: "Simply play the best."
"The Terrace will always offer a different experience than a big multiplex, so we're going to continue to offer that, between the lobby or the seats or the theaters or the clients, or the quality of projection. All that stuff," he says.
But they may enhance it in the future. One idea is to sponsor a film series with a local art gallery, something they started at the Aurora. They want to partner with an entity in Charleston to bring directors, writers, editors, and others involved in the industry to the city for film screenings. This gives the audience the chance to ask questions of someone involved in the movie's creation. They're still working out the details for this plan.
They're starting to meet members of the local film community and have an idea for a sweetheart project of running a boot camp film school. They'll try to make contact with film programs in the city, like those at the College of Charleston and the Art Institute of Charleston. They're also toying with the idea of holding a digital film contest, bringing small-time artists out of the woodwork and letting them see their projects on the big screen.
The Terrace will continue to open up the world to its customers, giving them options to see movies that they wouldn't see by filmmaking voices from around the world. It's an attentive and stimulating movie-going experience, with thought-provoking, even demanding, films.
"You don't feel like you're stepping into an arcade when you walk into the theater," he says. "You feel like you're actually being treated like a regular."