When gazing at the movie posters in the windows of the Historic Artcraft Theatre or scrolling through the monthly program, do you ever wonder how the films are chosen? This has always been a curiosity of mine, so I sat down with George Chimples, film, fundraising, and grants coordinator for the Historic Artcraft Theatre, to see how the theater's program is curated and what goes into getting some of the classics shown on the big screen in 35 mm film.
"Many of our practices evolved organically, rather than following how other theaters do things. Most theaters have a film program or programmers who spend a lot of time watching movies and curate programs, and it's usually one person or maybe two or three involved in the whole process. But the Artcraft has developed their program by committee for many years," says George. "The first thing we do is map out each season. We lay out the movies we know we are going to show."
The Artcraft always plans for movies such as "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," "Die Hard," "Wizard of Oz," and an Elvis movie at the beginning of every year. After getting those films on the schedule, they begin looking at the past films they show.
"Movies like 'Jaws,' 'Princess Bride,' or the 'Labyrinth' that we know will do well are scheduled on a four- to five-year rotation. We don't want to show them too often, so audiences don't become burnt out," said George. "Then we will look at what we haven't shown that we should have shown for different reasons. These could include classic films or if there are some things we want to stretch and see if there's a new audience out there for certain things. We go through the American Film Institute Top 100 list and look at old box office records to see what were hits back in the day."
The staff also tries to be mindful of the different types of movies they show, appealing to varying interests, genders, ages, and time periods. "We want to have a wide distribution of films. And we are also looking for films ten years or older," said George.
The Artcraft is a repertory theatre, meaning they only show older movies, never new, first-run movies. You can tell from glancing at their programs that the Artcraft only shows older movies that are at least ten years old. When going to see a movie at the Artcraft today, you’ll see one film alongside a Looney Tunes cartoon picked out by Steve Blair, the theatre’s projectionist extraordinaire.
In the middle of the 20th century, theaters like the Artcraft used to show double features and seriales. Each double feature used to be about 70 to 90 minutes and would be films that would compliment each other well. Many popular double feature bills include “The Odd Couple” and “Rosemary's Baby;” “Sabrina” and “Breakfast at Tiffany's;” “Sorcerer” and “Ice Cold in Alex;” and “The French Connection” and “The Seven-Ups.”
Seriales at the theatre were unrelated to a sugary bowl of cocoa pebbles or Cheerios. These short 10 minute clips ended on cliffhangers, leaving moviegoers returning to the theatre the following week to see if the cowboy hanging from the cliff would fall or get rescued. As time went on, serialized entertainment turned into TV shows, where viewers could watch the action on their TV sets at home. Who would pay to see "Gunsmoke" if you could see it at home with a decent TV set?
While today it is commonplace to have many different kinds of movies from varying studios in one theater, it didn’t used to be that way. Did you know that the majority of theaters were owned by the studios that produced the movies? For example, if you wanted to see a movie that Paramount produced, you went to the Paramount Theater. The Artcraft one was one of the few independently owned theaters. You may remember Trueman Rembusch, whom I mentioned in my first blog post. Trueman was one of the leading independent theater operators in the country, owning a whole network of theaters throughout the midwest.
Independent theater owners like Rembusch had a problem because they had to fight to get good movies from the studios. The studios often made more money being vertically integrated, only showing the films they produced themselves. Studios at the time held sleazy practices, requiring independent theatres to show movies that bombed and didn't make much at the box office if they were also going to show the popular hits. The film was also shipped on a circuit. A movie would debut on the east coast but might not come to middle America for a year or two because studios only had so many prints, and they only had so many places to show them. These practices made it difficult for the independent theaters to stay afloat.
In 1948, the Paramount decrees were enacted, which banned such practices and studios from owning theaters. Around this time is when the major independent theater chains formed.
In recent years, the United States government has been reexamining the Paramount decrees, questioning if they are still relevant in the age of digital streaming. While the future of these laws protecting independent theatre for decades is uncertain, studios still have their ways of putting limits on their movies. The official term is called embargo. If a studio embargoes a film, they limit where and how venues can show it for a specific time. Studios typically embargo films when movies have anniversary re-releases or a sequel comes out, along with a myriad of other reasons.
Have you wondered why "Hocus Pocus" isn't on the Artcraft's program this Halloween season, or why you never see "Star Wars" on the marquee? It is because these films have been embargoed for a period of time -- or in the case of "Star Wars," indefinitely.
Since "Hocus Pocus 2" is releasing on Disney+ on September 30, 2022, Disney Studios have embargoed the original film from repertory theaters showing it. However, you might have noticed that the Franklin Parks and Recs Department is showing "Hocus Pocus" at the DriveHubler.com amphitheater. This is because the park is under a different venue classification from Disney Studios that film is not embargoed from.
So what about "Star Wars"? Disney has guarded the set of galactic films, rarely releasing them for repertory theaters or other venues. While we can only assume why Disney tightly guards the highly popular series, it may have to do with the fact that the original films of "Star Wars" are scarce. Think about how many re-releases and special editions there are of “Return of the Jedi,” the original film may not even exist. Many of Disney's other films, such as the "Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," and other classics, are also protected and vaulted.
Many people may also not know that studios take a large cut of a theatre's box office ticket sales. 35% upwards to 50% of all ticket sales go straight back to the producers – even for older movies that the Artcraft shows. In the Artcraft’s case, many sponsors help offset these prices, keeping ticket and concession prices low so the community can enjoy movies every weekend.
Even though there are restrictions for repertory theaters, there are many other great movies in the wide world of film we can all enjoy. The people and businesses in the Johnson County area sponsor the great movies at the Artcraft.
"We have a sponsorship party on the first Saturday in February. That is when we will release the prospective schedule for the next season. There are all sorts of sponsorship opportunities that go up that people can then bid on," explained George.
Individuals and businesses can also sponsor much more than the movie at the party, including the prizes given away at the evening showings, the concessions, and the backstage support. These sponsorships help the theatre show movies 50 weekends out of the year.
What do you do if you want to see a movie at the Artcraft? Buy tickets, come to the showings, and bring your friends.
“Something that's important for people to keep in mind is if we are showing something they love, come and bring your friends. The best source of feedback is ticket sales,” said George. “Another thing to consider is if a movie didn't sell too well, but a ton of people who did came were super enthusiastic, we will look into trying a similar movie in the future, to see if an audience can grow.”
Do you have an idea for a movie the Artcraft hasn't shown? While many factors go into getting a film shown at the theatre, as we now know, the Artcraft team will always take a look at your suggestions and consider them when compiling their list for the next season. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or look for the "Suggest a Movie" sheet in the lobby the next time you see a movie.
Megan Elaine is a writer and storyteller who lives in Franklin, IN.