The small-town movie house braces for an un­ex­pected threat

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - NATION + WORLD - By JAKE COYLE AP Film Writer

The Cal­li­coon The­ater is a sin­gle-screen cinema along the banks of the Delaware River in the Catskills, in ru­ral up­state New York. It has an art-deco fa­cade and 380 seats. “We never sell out,” its box-of­fice phone line prom­ises. There’s not an­other the­ater for 30 miles.

Kristina Smith last year moved up from Brook­lyn and bought the Cal­li­coon, be­com­ing only its third owner. The Cal­li­coon, she says, is more than a place to see “Frozen 2” or “Par­a­site.” It’s a meet­ing place, a Main Street fix­ture, a hearth.

“It’s been like that for a re­ally long time. All the lo­cals up here, from third­gen­er­a­tion farm­ers to school teach­ers and fam­i­lies, they kind of rely on it,” says Smith. “In some of th­ese ru­ral ar­eas in Amer­ica, a lit­tle movie the­ater is kind of a lit­tle beat­ing heart of a town.”

Some­how, the Cal­li­coon has man­aged to op­er­ate con­tin­u­ously for 71 years. It has sur­vived tele­vi­sion. It has sur­vived the mul­ti­plex. It has sur­vived Net­flix. But, like a lot of small­town movie houses with one or two screens, the Cal­li­coon is fac­ing a new un­cer­tainty. This time it’s not be­cause of some­thing new but the erad­i­ca­tion of some­thing old.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment last week moved to ter­mi­nate the Para­mount Con­sent

De­crees, the agree­ment that has long gov­erned the sep­a­ra­tion of Hol­ly­wood stu­dios from movie the­aters. Hatched in the af­ter­math of a 1948 Supreme Court de­ci­sion that forced the stu­dios to di­vest them­selves of the the­aters they owned, the Para­mount De­crees dis­al­lowed sev­eral then-com­mon prac­tices of stu­dio con­trol, like “block-book­ing,” or forc­ing the­aters to take a block of films in or­der to play an ex­pected hit.

Their dis­so­lu­tion isn’t as­sured. Courts will re­view the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s ar­gu­ments and ul­ti­mately de­cide their fate. But the po­ten­tial crum­bling of a bedrock Hol­ly­wood tenet has led to wide­spread con­ster­na­tion from one cor­ner of the movie world more than any other: small, in­de­pen­dent the­aters. The fall­out for ma­jor stu­dios and large the­ater cir­cuits is less cer­tain. But in in­ter­views with people on all sides of the movie busi­ness, one take­away is agreed upon: It’s bad news for small­town movie houses like the Cal­li­coon.

“There is a heavy amount of push back and un­ease on the part of mid-size and small ex­hibitors and, frankly, there should be,” said a stu­dio dis­tri­bu­tion ex­ec­u­tive who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he wasn’t au­tho­rized to speak on his com­pany’s be­half. “The smaller ex­hibitors will get hurt. And that’s re­ally a shame. It’s dis­turb­ing that the show­man­ship of the smaller towns will dis­ap­pear in the event of this hap­pen­ing.”

The Para­mount De­crees may sound like a relic from a by­gone time. They were signed when most movie the­aters were sin­gle-screen stu­dio-con­trolled cin­e­mas, when TVs had yet to in­vade most homes, when Gene Kelly and Humphrey Bog­art were top stars. But the de­crees have played a mas­sive role in the history of Amer­i­can movies, shap­ing what, where and how movie­go­ers see what they see.

While more gen­eral an­titrust laws would still ap­ply, the­aters stand to lose le­gal pro­tec­tion on is­sues re­gard­ing block book­ing and price set­ting — is­sues that can have an out­sized ef­fect on smaller movie houses. Stu­dios al­ready some­times man­date a three-to­four week run for a pop­u­lar pic­ture. If a stu­dio turns around and says that in or­der to play one sure­fire block­buster, a the­ater must also take a less pop­u­lar film for an ex­tended run, that could have dire ef­fects on a movie house with only so many screens.

“Be­cause of the pop­u­la­tion size, I don’t have enough people up here to with­stand a four-week run of a pic­ture. I don’t care what movie it is, by week four, I’m los­ing money,” says Smith. “Tether that to a less pop­u­lar pic­ture, you could prob­a­bly only do that two or three times to the Cal­li­coon The­ater be­fore we close our doors.”

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