The city of Philadelphia has a movie-screen problem. It’s not just the wildly insufficient number of theaters or even of screens. Most cities Philadelphia’s size have at least one major, centrally located multiscreen theater in downtown, as well as a major repertory house.
Philadelphia has neither. The architecturally significant Boyd Theatre was razed in 2015 after years of decline, and it’s now been 15 years since Center City had a major movie theater showing regular first-run movies; that's practically unheard of in big U.S. markets. Center City very much needs a signature, centrally located movie theater. Multiplexes exist in West Philly (Rave Cinemas University City, formerly the Bridge), North Philly (Broad Street 7, formerly the Pearl), and South Philly (Riverview), all of which have their pluses and minuses. But Center City remains entirely multiplex-free.
The three Ritz Cinemas (East, Five, and Bourse), all sit within a few blocks of each other in Old City and offer a steady diet of art-house films, but not a lot in the way of repertory fare. Two venues now controlled by the Philadelphia Film Society — the Prince Theater and the Roxy — serve as adequate venues for the Philadelphia Film Festival and everyday showings, but both have drawbacks. The Prince is a performance venue first and a movie theater second. The Roxy works fine, but it’s tiny, and for most of last week its two screens showed the Alien and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels.
The suburbs, of course, are full of multiplexes, as well as those that offer food and even alcohol, and a few houses in the suburbs — Bryn Mawr Film Institute (BMFI), Abington’s Hiway Theater, Ambler Theater, and Phoenixville’s Colonial Theater — offer decent repertory showings and special events. But overall, there’s not much of a repertory scene in the city itself, compared to New York or Boston.
Philly needs direction
I realize the economics of this are dicey and Center City real estate is expensive. Many potential cinema projects have been rumored for arrival in Center City over the years, even beyond the long-running, ill-fated Boyd saga, but none ever came to fruition. There is hope, though. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in January that a “cinema tenant” is listed in city records as occupying part of the Fashion Outlets Mall under construction on Market Street, on the former site of the Gallery.
A Licenses and Inspections Department spokeswoman said a zoning/use permit was issued for a movie theater at the site but a building permit has not yet been granted, and no one involved, from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to the spokesman for the Fashion Outlets Philadelphia, would comment on who the applicant might be.
Ideally, Alamo Drafthouse or iPic could make an incursion into Center City, or perhaps Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema. These are major multiscreen theaters that would be centrally located with a combination of first-run blockbusters, art-house films, special events, knowledgeable staff, and great food and beer.
That’s what Philadelphia needs. I attended screenings at Alamo Drafthouse throughout the South by Southwest festival in Austin two years ago, and afterward it was very hard to go back to regular movie theaters.
Way out west
One example of what the city is missing sits just a few miles away, at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
BMFI, a nonprofit, offers most of the things cineastes want in a high-quality art house: four screens, first-run showings of indie films, knowledgeable staff who take cinema and presentation quality seriously, a strong lineup of repertory showings as well as special events and even educational programming, first-rate popcorn, and, of course, the best marquee in town. In the next couple of months, BMFI plans a four-week Sidney Lumet retrospective, a continuing discussion series on the films of 1967, and a simulcast of the National Theatre’s staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Samuel Scott has orbited the film industry for much of his adult life. He holds a film-studies degree and has worked in both production and distribution; his daughter is a vice president at Universal Pictures. For the last seven years he has served on BMFI’s board, including a recent term as chairman. Now, Scott prepares to take over as BMFI’s executive director, replacing Juliet Goodfriend, the theater’s founder, who steps down in June. Scott takes over June 15, 2017, while Goodfriend will swap roles with him, assuming the chairmanship.
His goals include a new strategic plan to “widen and enhance” the theater’s audience, while also preparing the four-screen space for the future. “Ticket sales contribute more to what we do than almost any arts organization in the region,” he told me. But he also hopes to increase fundraising and to prepare the institution for the next wave of technological changes in film exhibition: while BMFI’s projection is mostly digital, it maintains traditional film projectors.
Scott knows that in many ways BMFI’s competition isn’t so much multiplexes or other independent movie houses, it’s Netflix and other streaming services. He is mindful that the ease of at-home streaming challenges anyone in the film-exhibition business.
How can BMFI compete? By encouraging the communal experience. For Scott, it all comes back to the appeal of seeing a movie on a big screen, with a crowd, “sitting in a darkened room, laughing together, crying together... If someone wanted to see a great film, there’s a place to see it,” Scott said. “Film culture is something we’re good at, and we want to be the best at.” When it comes to BMFI, that’s certainly true. Let’s hope Philadelphia eventually offers them some competition.