The demise of the Westhampton comes as two-screen cinemas, often beloved by their communities, are being shut down across the country.
It should come as no surprise. Small theaters have battled rising rents, plummeting ticket sales and increased competition from multiplexes owned by chain behemoths. Consumers can watch on demand — and many of them prefer to do it from the comfort of their living rooms.
The problem seems to be hitting both two-screen theaters that show mainstream Hollywood movies, and venues like the Westhampton, which showed major independent films. During the last few years, such theaters have closed in such places as Raleigh, North Carolina, and Queens, New York. Donation and membership drives have stepped in to save others.
As for the Westhampton, representatives of Regal Cinemas, which owned the theater, told the Times-Dispatch that the theater was performing poorly for years, and that two-screen theaters often fail to generate enough revenue to cover costs.
Regal sold the theater to the Cametas family last year for $1.75 million, close to its assessed value of $1.725 million. Some of those who live near the theater at Libbie and Grove avenues have rallied against elements of the development plans that include condos, office space and a restaurant that would change the face of building. Others saw change as inevitable.
The profit that can be leveraged by a multiplex versus a two-screen or single-screen theater is significant, says Todd Schall-Vess, the manager of the Byrd Theatre. The movie palace makes most of its money by screening second-run mainstream productions, but also holds screenings of independent films.
Schall-Vess says that a multiplex can generate more sales by showing more movies at once without employing significantly more employees than a smaller theater. “It’s a way to make more money off of a single facility without multiplying the costs,” he says.
That’s the model followed by Regal, into which the Westhampton didn’t neatly fit. But Schall-Vess says that even truly independent theaters have a difficult time becoming self-sustaining and often supplement ticket sales with fundraising and regular contributions.
Some larger theaters are experimenting with a combination of approaches. The owner of Movieland at Boulevard Square, Bow Tie Partners, opened a four-screen art cinema in its parking lot a few years ago — adding variety and options to its 17-screen Movieland complex.
But two local pioneers are hoping that a small, independent theater can stand on its own in Richmond. Film buffs Terry Rea and James Parrish have been working on plans to open the Bijou Film Center within the arts district on Broad Street.
The name is a throwback to Theater Row — an early 1900s hot-spot of theaters, vaudeville and nickelodeons located in the vicinity of the current-day Library of Virginia.
Rea and Parrish envision a roughly 100-seat theater with a cafe that serves wine, soup and other items not commonly found at movie concessions — something that may help the theater sustain itself. And they also seek to preserve fragile older films for future generations.
Rea first jumped into Richmond’s film scene when he owned the Biograph, an independent theater located on Grace Street, in the 1970s. Parrish is the co-founder of the James River Film Society.
The venue differs from the Westhampton in that it will specialize in showing the smaller independent films that don’t benefit from large distributors to get the word out. Many of the films will have premiered at major film festivals but others will be from local filmmakers.
“What we think is we have a niche where we can pick good films that mostly get ignored by the major chains,” Rea says.
The pair has a goal of raising $12,000 toward a lease space and $6,000 toward equipment and initial programming. They’ve been holding a membership donation drive that ends April 16 (bijoufilmcenter.org) and will be capped off by a members-only party at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. The event will feature performances by the Green Hearts, Big Boss Combo and Grass Panther.
A little bit of the Westhampton also will live on in the new venue. The Cametas family has donated 279 of the theater’s seats and its smaller screen to the Bijou.
Parrish says he hopes the city will embrace the Bijou as its own: “We are filling the hole in the hearts and minds of Richmond.” S