JoAnne Dyer recalls that her most memorable moviegoing experience was last year during the Seattle International Film Festival.
The SIFF volunteer was sitting in the Egyptian Theatre to watch “Hit So Hard,” a biographical movie about Patty Schemel, a local drumming icon for the band Hole. Also in the audience: Schemel herself.
Dyer says she’s saddened the theater is closing June 27 after more than 20 years on Capitol Hill after efforts to renew its lease failed.
“Anytime a venue that goes away that offers independent or foreign or offbeat films or anything that’s beyond multiplex Hollywood, I’m sad,” Dyer said. “I like old Seattle. I don’t like to see parts of that go.”
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The 600-seat single-screen theater on Pine Street near Broadway
opened in 1915 as
the Masonic Temple. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Masons hosted professional wrestling matches there. SIFF started using the theater in the early 1980s. Current renter Landmark Theatres has shown foreign films, documentaries and restored classics there since 1989.
“We were unable to come to terms for a new lease,” said Lauren Kleiman, publicity director for Landmark. “The Egyptian is a single-screen theater and single-screen theaters are tough to work from an economic standpoint.”
Seattle Central Community College bought the building in 1992. The theater is a separate business entity from the college and its closing “will have no impact on students or class life because it was just a rental property,” said Janet Grimley, interim director of communications for Seattle Central Community College. “Somebody else will rent the space.”
There are 1,600 single-screen movie theaters in the United States, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Besides the Egyptian Theatre, the Cinerama on the northern edge of downtown Seattle is also a single-screen house.
Chris Blanchett, communications director for the Seattle Film Institute, said smaller theaters are struggling to stay relevant to moviegoers. Some have started hosting various kinds of performances and live entertainment to attract weekday audiences.
“It’s tough for smaller theaters to compete against bigger movie chains, who have tons of theaters and screens and are pouring a lot more advertising dollars into drawing people in,” Blanchett said. He also cited the industry movement from 35mm film to digital film in the past five years. Film companies are now offering their movies in encoded form onto hard drives that theaters upload to their servers and project onto screens.
While the Egyptian Theatre had made the digital conversion, other theaters are struggling to make the switch before 35mm film becomes defunct.
Jeff Brein, managing partner of Far Away Entertainment, which owns seven small local theaters, said he was sad to hear Seattle was losing another historic theater. But his own company is struggling with the costly digital conversion, which can run as much as $82,000 per screen.
“The banks won’t loan us money, the city wouldn’t loan us money,” Brein said. “It’s an economic climate that’s very challenging.”
Though the larger multiplexes have been able to make the switch, Brein said small theaters that have one, two or three screens are at a competitive disadvantage, especially with contract requirements regarding how long certain movies are required to be shown in theaters. If a small theater is limited to one or two movies for its screens for two weeks they could lose interest and dollars from moviegoers.
For Dyer, she still plans to continue volunteering for SIFF and supporting local theaters. She hopes Hollywood can go beyond special effects and comic-book characters to create movies that will challenge audiences and make them think.
“There’s still a lot of filmmakers out there making quality films,” she said. “Seattle being a film city and a major metropolitan city should be able to support that.”
Marissa Evans: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org