The Capawock Theatre turns 100 years old this year, but there are no plans to hold a midnight screening celebration. The oldest continually running theatre in the state is closed this winter. After a century that saw more technological advances than any other, Benjamin Hall Sr. is taking stock.
“I am sitting here like a fool, not taking a paycheck for 12 years, keeping it open for the benefit of the employees,” Mr. Hall said. “I had some fun doing it, but that’s all it’s worth.”
Mr. Hall’s father, Alfred Hall, bought the theatre in 1934. Mr. Hall’s sons, Brian and Benjamin Jr., have allowed their father to run the theatre for the past several years out of love, he said. With no immediate plans to reopen, it looks like the formerly year-round Capawock will remain closed at least until summer.
Mr. Hall said he is racking his brain for ways to inject new life into the cinema. “I have to figure out, am I going to do the same old, same old . . . how do I get people to come back in the theatre?” he said. “I am doing so many things the old fashioned way, and the world has come and gone.”
While other cinemas print their tickets on location, Mr. Hall still buys them in advance from a printer, he said. He doesn’t maintain a website or accept advance reservations.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the Capawock’s anachronisms is the projection system. Mr. Hall can screen DVDs, Blu-Ray discs and 35 mm film, but production companies will soon stop manufacturing film reels in favor of hard drives which hold digital motion picture software. Film companies announced their intentions to phase out the 35 mm celluloid film five years ago, but the timeline for that change remains unclear.
“There is no hard deadline, a lot of companies have said the end of this year,” said Richard Paradise, founder and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society.
Mr. Hall did invest in a preliminary digital technology several years ago, but that also has become outdated, he said. “I just moved too far and too fast, and got caught in the crossfire,” he said. “I was too much on the cutting edge, and I didn’t anticipate that I would have to go for the present standard.”
An estimated 90 per cent of movie theatres have already converted to digital projection, including many independent theatres. But many Mom and Pop cinemas that can’t afford to make the costly conversion have closed their doors. The Capawock, Island and Strand theatres, all of which are owned by the Hall family, could be next in line.
The Hall family was once at the forefront of cinematic technology. Alfred Hall was the first person to bring talkies to the Island, which he screened first at the Island theatre in Oak Bluffs in the late 1920s. At the time, movies were still the king of entertainment, Mr. Hall said.
For each movie he screens at the Capawock, Mr. Hall hires four people: a concessionaire, a projectionist (often Mr. Hall himself), a doorman and a floor manager, whose paychecks add up to significant overhead, he said.
The DCI conversion would cost $45,000 to $50,000 per cinema, Mr. Hall said. But he isn’t convinced that the investment would be worthwhile. “The main audience of movie theatres has disappeared; they view their movies in the palm of their hand.” Here on the Vineyard, there are countless competing entertainment events, especially for the teenagers, he added. “There is so much else for them to do.”
If he could move the Capawock to Falmouth he would, he said. That town has the demographics a movie theatre needs to be viable, he said.
“You have to have 50,000 people within a 25-mile radius.” He doesn’t see room in the market for many theatres. “For the year-round population that we have here, it’s overkill.”
There are two theatres open during the off-season this year: the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven and Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown. The Film Center installed the DCI-compliant digital projection equipment at their opening in September of 2012. The theatre’s entire projection system, including processors, amplifiers and speakers, cost $150,000.
Last year Edgartown’s cinema converted along with the other movie theatres owned by their parent company, Entertainment Cinemas. They now have the capability to screen movies in 3D, which allows them to charge two extra dollars per ticket for these movies. On a recent evening, a small group of patrons spilled out onto an otherwise empty Main street from a showing of Gravity in 3D. A New Jersey couple, vacationing on the Island, was among them. It was one of three or four times they’ve attended a movie in the 26 years of their marriage. On a cool night in late fall, they said, what else was there to do on the Vineyard?
The Film Society, which now occupies the Film Center at the Tisbury Marketplace, shows fewer mainstream films, focusing instead on independent, foreign and classic films, and documentaries.
While there is occasional overlap between the programming of the two cinemas, Mr. Paradise said those films only make up about five per cent of their offerings.
For 12 years, Mr. Paradise ran the center as a part-time operation, screening films on Friday or Saturday nights at various locations around the Island. But two years ago he made the leap to build a new cinema. “It was a question of . . . is there enough demand in the market?” he said. “There were people who didn’t think we could.”
All told, they’ve had a successful year, ending in the black with a modest surplus, Mr. Paradise said. Unlike the for-profit cinemas, the film society supplements ticket sales with membership fees and donations.
Mr. Hall said it’s difficult for a for-profit outlet to compete with a nonprofit organization. “It is a difficult time for old fashioned movie theatres,” he said. “Anyone else operating the way I did could not have sustained it for the 10 years I have done it, out of my own pocket.”
Mr. Paradise feels the competition is not between nonprofit and for-profit cinemas and instead points to the competition between the Capawock and the Edgartown cinema. “[They] show exactly the same films,” mostly commercial releases, Mr. Paradise said. “The question is, is there room for two commercial theatres showing the same films?” He said in the past it has seemed like the two cohabited well. “I would hope to see the Capawock open again,” Mr. Paradise said.
The Island population swells in the summer to well above 100,000 people, so going forward Mr. Hall may open the Capawock exclusively during the summer. In the meantime, he said the theatre is available for event rentals.
When he talks about his plans for his beloved theatre, Mr. Hall often waffles between pessimism and cautious optimism. “It’s the beginning of the end,” he says. “It’s an artifact now.” But a few moments later, he’s making a list of classic films he’d like to screen or perhaps another opera film series.