If you’re a regular movie-goer, you’re part of a disappearing breed. The declining — and aging — audience for cinema is only one of the challenges facing Upstate Films as the non-profit group embarks on its third year at Woodstock’s Tinker Street Cinema.
Demographics be damned, Upstate co-directors Steve and Dede Lieber (rhymes with fiber) are determined to make Woodstock a successful addition to their Rhinebeck-based operation. Despite somewhat disappointing initial results, Upstate Films Ltd. last week signed a two-year renewal of its lease for the former Tinker Street Cinema. “The jury’s still out on the experiment but we’re giving it a try,” said Steve Lieber.
The experiment began two years ago, when Tinker Street Cinema owners/operators Nancy and Cyrus Adler relinquished management to pursue other business interests. “We were tired after 30 years,” said Cy Adler.
Upstate Films seemed like a perfect successor. “It was an already-existing cinema, which actually pre-dated Upstate by a year or so, with a similar programming approach, so it was already perceived as an art cinema,” explained Dede Lieber. “It also seemed that it would disappear if we didn’t take it over,” she added, providing a glimpse into the passion for a certain kind of cinema that has driven her and Steve over the nearly four decades since they founded Upstate Films in Rhinebeck with Susan Goldman, a college friend.
“We thought we could open in Woodstock because we have a brand and it has a real positive reputation and people have a good feel about it,” said Goldman, who has chaired Upstate’s ten-member board since 1979, when she stepped back from day-to-day management duties. Over its most recent fiscal year, ending in July 2011, Woodstock tallied only about 17,000 admissions, versus a total of about 59,000 admissions for the two screens in Rhinebeck, according to Steve Lieber.
“We all hoped it would be busier than it is. Woodstock is a small town. We hoped we would draw from the larger area,” Goldman said, noting that people regularly come from as far away as Poughkeepsie and New Paltz to enjoy movies at Upstate in Rhinebeck.
While Goldman underlined the importance of efforts to expand the audience reach beyond Woodstock into neighboring localities, no concrete initiatives seem to be underway. A few improvements are planned however, including a new sign, some repainting and re-roofing of the building — the Woodstock Methodist Church before becoming a movie theatre in 1967.
Disappointing attendance affects more than box office take. It also means that Upstate must generally show films first in Rhinebeck and move them only later to Woodstock. That’s because film distributors establish the pecking order for new films based on projected revenues.
“Just because you have a movie theatre doesn’t mean that you can say to the distributors that we want to show this particular film on this particular date,” said Steve Lieber, who devotes much of his time to the Woodstock venture. In any given region, the distributors want a film to open where it will attract the largest possible audience. “It’s not an issue of playing the movies in Woodstock; but the distributors don’t want to open their movies in Woodstock because the theatre won’t make as much money,” added Becca Prahl, Upstate Films Associate Director and unofficial heir-apparent to the sexagenarian Liebers.
The wider variety of entertainment options in Woodstock compared to Rhinebeck’s relatively limited cultural scene undoubtedly affects attendance at the Tinker Street cinema. But the stiffest competition may come from home entertainment choices — from Netflix and DVDs to video games and various on-demand programming.
To make matters worse for virtually all cinema owners, distributors are demanding a growing portion of the box office pie. In many cases, distributors get nearly 50% of the box office, compared to an average of about 43% in the past, according to Steve Lieber. That means film distributors receive a huge portion of the approximately $800,000 that Upstate rings up annually in admissions, memberships, concession sales and other income.
“Yes this is a business but it’s also a total labor of love for all of us,” said Dede during a joint interview with Steve, Becca Prahl and Upstate Operations Manager Ben Fundis. “Sometimes we want to do the labor of love side more than we want to do the business side, but [the distributors] are pretty much all about business. The people who work in those offices, they like movies, but they’re working for multinational corporations and it’s a job.”
Demographics also seem to be working against Upstate, whose core audience consists of people 62 and older. “Is movie-going becoming like chamber music, where everyone in the audience has my color hair?” asks Steve, adding that even the Hollywood studios fail to consistently attract younger audiences.
“The core audience is aging. At some point, it will be aging out and when the baby boomer generation is no longer going to the movies, it will be difficult to sustain [an art theatre],” said Larry Jackson, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based producer, distributor and consultant for independent filmmakers.
On top of all these woes is a technology challenge, as digital cinema replaces traditional film. The change means that Upstate and all smaller theatres will soon be obligated to purchase digital projectors to replace or at least supplement their traditional film projectors as celluloid film prints fall into obsolescence.
Were it not for their passion for cinema, the Liebers might have long ago abandoned the sometimes Sisyphusian struggle to keep Upstate afloat. “The Liebers are like a national treasure. Anyone that spends their whole life either projecting movies or taking tickets or managing this kind of business, it’s not an easy endeavor,” said Peter Hutton, an Upstate Films board member who is an experimental filmmaker and professor of filmmaking at Bard College. “Nobody’s getting rich at Upstate Films.” ++