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Front Page » March 25, 2004 » Business Journal » The only shows in town
Published 4,212 days ago

The only shows in town

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Sun Advocate community editor

The downtown Price area, as viewed from the Crown Theaters entrance, is impacted greatly by the presense of both the movie theaters in the area. Construction on both sides of the Crown are demonstrating that the downtown area is being revitalized and hopes are that more businesses will consider staying open in the evening, when many residents say they would like to shop.

In the movie "The Majestic" Jim Carey plays a movie writer from the late 1940's who loses his memory, ends up in a small northern California town and is mistaken by a grieving theater owning father as his long lost war hero son. The new son reopens the old 1920's built show house and turns it into a money making operation. Eventually, he and everyone else learns the truth about who he is, but somehow he finds that little town irresistible, comes back and marries "his" high school sweetheart and continues to run the theater as they live "happily ever after."

The movie was a kind of "emperor without his clothes" comment, where everyone really knew Carey wasn't the long lost son, but they somehow were convinced by the sad father, that he was who the father claimed him to be.

The movie business is actually a lot like that. Movie makers try to convince everyone that what the public sees on the screen is real, even though it isn't.

But, despite that, there are some very real things in the movie business, probably the most actual of which is the operation of the facility where movies are actually shown.

In "The Majestic" the old theater is a grand lady of her time, built in the 1920's, an era of silent movies. She is also the center piece of the small town; an ornament that decorates the Main Street, with flashing lights and beautiful, artistic lines.

In Carbon County, there were once numerous theaters, almost one in every small town. But the really fancy ones were in Price, and two of those still exist, and operate, today. They are known as the Price and the Crown. Both are part of the history of the area.

Ask anyone who grew up during the depression or the 1940's and they will tell you that they spent many happy hours, in the pre-television days, watching their favorite serial or movie stars on screens in these kinds of old theatres.

Then came the 1950's and television. The small monochrome box displaced the big screen in a lot of places and the large movie palaces began to fade away. Drive-in movies became all the rage and Carbon County had two of them, one between 800 and 900 East Main in Price and the other, whose remnant screen and speaker poles still stand, in Carbonville.

But the theater business changed and evolved to try and meet the challenge; technicolor, wide screens like Cinerama and stereo sound were used to appeal to a public spoiled by free entertainment on what became the colored television screens of the 1960's. It seemed to many that television would forever take away the business.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the sound stage. Today movie theaters coexists, in a very healthy way, with not only cable and satellite television, but also with releases on compact disk.

While Mike Johnson, the owner of all three theaters in Price hasn't been around for all these changes since show houses were first built, he has seen quite a few in the 35 years he has worked in the business.

"I started working in this theater when I was 15 years old," he said as he sat in a cushy chair in the upstairs lobby of the Price Theater. "Joe and Mary Santi owned the theater then and from the beginning I got the business in my blood."

Presently the Crown is a first run theater, with the Price being a discount show house. The King Koal Theaters, the only multiplex in town, also shows first run movies.

"The King Koal (which was built in the early 1980's) was originally supposed to be a large men's store, but the tenant pulled out and the owner of the theaters at the time got offered the space for a theater," says Johnson. "We were supposed to build a new theater on 100 North (where the Olivetto Complex is now located), but moved there instead.

Johnson, who worked for many of the owners of the theaters over the years, finally had his chance to buy the three locations about eight years ago. Now he and his wife, Valerie, operate the show houses with 15 employees.

Mike Johnson, in the projection room at the Price Theater, says the business got in his blood 35 years ago and has never let go.

"People often wonder why we have different start times from theater to theater," he explained. "We rotate our employees between the theaters and when they open for the evening we need more there than we do while it is operating. So we move the crew to another theater as the night progresses."

Like all businesses there are cycles. The holiday season is a great time for business and so is the summer. In the fall and the spring things are slow.

"That's why you see all the blockbusters released during the holidays and in the summertime," stated Johnson.

The actual showhouse business makes it's money in a different way from what most businesses do. The typical retail business sells every product at a markup, and therefore pays it's costs and gleans the profit. In the theater business the movie itself makes very little money for the proprietor.

"For many of the most popular movies during the first two weeks it is shown we pay 95 percent of the box receipts to rent it and then that percentage drops off as the movie gets older," explains Johnson. "However, once it has been around two weeks most people have seen it and the business have seen it and the business falls off anyway."

While percentages paid vary from movie to movie, the real money maker in a theater is the concessions. People may often complain about the price of candy, popcorn and drinks in a theater, but that is how they stay in business. How much money a theater gleans from it's concessions is divided by the number of tickets sold and the result is called a "percap". The better the percap, the more healthy the business.

Sometimes certain blockbuster movies are not shown locally, another thing that some people complain about. But there is a very good reason for that.

"It's not that we don't want those movies, we do," states Johnson. "It has to do with bookings. Our booking agent works with distributors to book the best movies for us, but some movie companies don't want to book their offerings in small town theaters, so we don't get them."

Of course that hurts business. But so have other things that have transpired in our modern, but dangerous times. Johnson says that after 9-11, insurance rates for theaters went crazy.

"Everyone is scared to insure a place where large numbers of people gather," he says. "There are only a very few insurance companies that we can even get coverage from now."

But despite the problems and the costs, Johnson says that the theater business hooked him and he has never been able to get out of it In plain language he loves it.

"The worst thing I deal with is the janitorial work involved," he laments. "People make a mess in the houses and we have to clean it up because customers don't want to come to a dirty place. But the worst is far outweighed by the best thing I do which is being able to work with the public."

Changes in technology has also created big costs for theater owners. Johnson has seen the industry go from reel to reel film, using two projectors to overlap, to reels that run on platters using one projector. In recent years developments in sound technology has made movie soundtracks more clear and crisp. Things continue to change and evolve nationally and locally as well.

"We have some great plans for the future of our theaters as the economy continues to turn around," he states and then adds, "Some exciting plans."

The two downtown theaters could actually be at the heart of a new spirit in the area. Price City, working in conjunction with the Utah Main Street Project, did a survey and it showed that many residents would like to spend time, shop and spend money downtown in the evening. However, other than a few restaurants, a couple of bars and clubs and the theaters, pretty much everything else is closed during that time of the day. In fact almost all of the cars parked on Main Street between 100 West and 100 East after 7 p.m. at night belong to those that are in the theaters.

Johnson sees the new construction going on around The Crown and hopes that will help everyone. On one side a new insurance office building, on the other a new steakhouse.

"It will be a give and take," he says. "The steakhouse will help us and hopefully we will help them."

He also says he is trying to get all the lights on the two downtown locations fixed. At The Crown, the marquee comes on brightly, but the crown part of the sign doesn't light up. At The Price, the main signs lights are out.

"They are not working and I have been talking with the city about RDA money to help me get them fixed," he explains concerning the expensive repairs. "It would be great to see them on again."

And like "The Majestic" they would illuminate the night and hopefully bring more people into the theaters and the downtown area as well.

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March 25, 2004
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