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film: Lights, Camera, Inaction

Richmond cinemas close and two film enthusiasts weigh the options.

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Many feel that Richmond has never needed that kind of determination more.

At the end of a recent mass e-mail to people on the list of the Richmond Moving Image Co-op, co-founder James Parrish bemoaned the lack of "film-going options in Richmond," and called for a do-it-yourself solution. "A storefront will do," he wrote. "Anyone with me?"

Who could be against him? The closings of the Willow Lawn and Ridge cinemas have done more than force Richmonders on pilgrimages to distant counties to see first-run features. If anything, the lights going out at theaters in the near 'burbs have only illuminated a glaring fact about the city: Filmgoers simply have next to nowhere to go.

The two cinemas that do still operate in the city, the Byrd Theater in Carytown and the Westhampton near Libbie and Grove, are mere shadows of former times, when Richmond boasted as many as five vibrant movie houses at once. The Westhampton, which runs foreign and domestic independent films, spent the greater part of the summer profiting from the sleeper hit of the year, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," with only one screen left over to rotate other movies. The Byrd, once a regular repertory house, now limits its one screen to profitable second runs of mainstream films.

That's three screens, one a summer-long big fat broken record. Not a lot of options, indeed, and this has spurred people like Parrish to consider taking action. The Flicker founder mostly dreams of the do-it-yourself storefront, a gallery-type space with a single screen that he says "would hearken back to the early days of film-going," when store owners just converted their spaces with a projector, a screen and chairs.

"I don't care if we have folded chairs," says Jones, Parrish's partner in the RMIC and a teacher of film history at VCU and Randolph-Macon College. Even though neither Jones nor Parrish has made it past the idea stage, it's hard to doubt Jones' energy or enthusiasm. Without waiting for a single question during a recent phone interview, he tears into the topic of the Richmond movie scene, starting with a brief history of the Biograph, which opened in 1972 and offered Richmond experimental films and repertory festivals. Along with the Biograph, more than 200 repertory art-house theaters have closed around the country since then, Jones points out. He thinks the axe was the inevitable result of the VCR, cable television and home theater systems. People can now hold their own Woody Allen festivals in the comfort of a nearby living room.

But if Jones and Parrish open a repertory theater now, will people come? Would Jones be able to convince the filmgoers who lined up around the block to see the Byrd's second run of "Amelie" to regularly attend the "experimental films, hard art films" that he says would be a staple?

"People keep telling me that Richmond's not a film town," Jones says. But he sees the continued development of the RMIC — it supports Flicker, a bimonthly 16mm and Super-8 film festival, and the James River Festival of the Moving Image, now entering its 10th year — as just an extension of the enthusiasm for filmgoing that used to center on the Biograph. He feels that the essence of that home base still lives on in his group's continuing projects, waiting to be reborn. With that thought he summons the spirit of the '70s, commenting, "It's kind of a state of mind." S

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