Making a case for a downtown movie theater 

Lights, Camera, Inaction

click to enlarge It may seem that The American Theater shows a lot of wedding movies, but this venue hasn't hosted a film premiere in some time

Mac Kilduff

It may seem that The American Theater shows a lot of wedding movies, but this venue hasn't hosted a film premiere in some time

Before I decided to use the same big word over and over again for this semi-rant, I thought it best to look it up with regard to the theater-going experience. Fortunately "communal" didn't just produce results related to porno houses and cults. Instead, one of the first links was to a story about director Martin Scorsese, detailing the communal Catholic experience for his recent film, Silence. In the piece, the director lamented the slow death of the communal theater-going experience as well, saying, "The cinema I grew up with and that I'm making, it's gone. The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there's no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be? Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am."

I understand what Scorsese is talking about.

Growing up, one of my favorite communal experiences involved a meta-scene in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch. After multiple hiccups and slow-downs, midway through the film the audience was treated to a blinding white screen. A collective of invectives were hurled at the screen but, before things could get out-of-hand, a gremlin silhouette popped up doing hand puppets. Next thing you know, Hulk Hogan was threatening the "grimsters" to put Gremlins 2 back on. The crowd lost its shit. I was a happy monster movie dork that day.

This was the type of experience you used to be able to enjoy downtown. In the year 2000, several friends and I learned what "ass-to-ass" meant when we queasily watched Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream at The Roxy on East Bay Street. What a wonderfully miserable experience that was. In 2004, a friend and I gulped wine while listening to audience members quietly sniffle during a screening of The Notebook at The American Theater on King Street. In 2009, me and a writer friend watched Tom Hardy's huge dong hang on a 70-foot screen thanks to The Hippodrome's screening of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. Last year, my only downtown theater-going experience wasn't at a theater at all but at the Charleston Music Hall when I went with a group of friends to see The Exorcist accompanied by a live score.

To be perfectly melodramatic about it, the lack of a downtown movie theater ... it tears me apart.

About four years ago, most likely after a night of imbibing and feeling nostalgic, I visited the website of The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema — a nerdier version of Cinebarre. The Austin, Texas-based cinema chain is known for its wonderfully strict no-talking policy as well as hosting myriad movie parties, film festivals, boy-band dance parties, and even screenings of old mid-80s VHS oddities. Long story short, it's a movie nerd's wet dream come to glorious life.

While scouring the website, I visited the franchise page, made little notes of what the criteria were, fired off an inquisitive "What does it take to get an Alamo in Charleston?" email, and went to bed struck by the awesomeness of my own genius. The next morning, I revisited my handwritten notes. First off, I was stunned at the lack of legibility. Secondly, I was wondering what the hell I drank last night. Thirdly, I was hoping I didn't say anything too stupid in my email inquiry.

A few days later, I got a response in the form of a six-page brochure and a page meant for a potential franchisee. I quickly learned I didn't have anywhere near the capital to help front an Alamo here. But I was optimistic. "Well," I thought, "there is such a thing as investors so, don't frown, Charlie Brown."

It was when I saw the Alamo's real estate preferences that I grimaced. Where in downtown is there 40,000 available square feet with a capacity for 10-plus screens? Chagrined, my inner monologue went on, "Well, downtown Charleston is overstuffed already. There's no way they would ever make room for a movie theater. I'm sure if they haven't put a cap on building things of that size at this moment, they will at some point because it's getting pretty crazy in this, the Year of Our Lord 2013. Surely they would never let it get out of control downtown. I'm sure the flooding problem weighs on their mind. I know it stays with me when I'm pushing my heap through that one flooded area on Calhoun Street. I'm sure developers wouldn't push local citizens and small businesses out for another parking garage or a hip, new eatery. That would be mildly morally bankrupt. And I'm sure they, like me, don't want yet another franchise descending upon Charleston to take away business from a local business. Well, fuck it. It was worth a shot."

Four years later, I know it may be a dying, selfish fantasy, but I'd love to see a downtown theater happen. I'm aware The Roxy and The Hippodrome no longer exist and The American no longer shows movies, but that was a different time then.

Since then, Charleston's popularity has grown infinitely. I know watching a movie on a laptop is cheaper and home theaters are pretty accessible, but the communal theater-going experience can be a lot like going to a RiverDogs game if the right amount of passion and, well, money is involved.

Yeah, we're a food destination, but I'd like to think that downtown Charleston would be open to more than just another restaurant. I'm sure some people visiting downtown wouldn't mind seeing a movie here and there. We have a shitload of students and F&B employees downtown who would likely prefer not to Uber their way to a movie theater in Mt. Pleasant or West Ashley. We have an ever-growing number of film festivals, a new one seems to pop up every other week. Surely all these factors mean there is a market out there for something downtown.

Opening anything downtown is a risk unto itself. Much less if it isn't a garage, a new set of apartments, or a restaurant.

Normally, like a lemming, I'd willingly agree with everything a Catholic cineaste like Scorsese says, but I'd prefer he was wrong about this one.


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