At the Edgartown Cinemas on a recent evening, the most popular movie in America plays to an almost empty theatre. About a dozen patrons enjoy a laugh as Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro engage in madcap hijinx in Meet the Fockers.
Over at the Island Theatre on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are scheming their way to riches in Ocean's Twelve, the fifth highest earner at the box office. But they, too, look down from the screen to a mostly empty room.
This scene has been playing out in Vineyard theatres for months now. Vineyard moviegoers are disappearing.
"I guess people just don't want to go to the movies anymore," says Bob LaSala, manager of Edgartown Cinemas. "Either that or the movies just haven't been good this year. I'm not really sure why, but viewership is down."
Brian Hall, who along with his father, Benjamin Hall Sr., and brother Benjamin Hall Jr., runs the Vineyard's other three movie theatres - the Island, the Strand and the Capawock - can sympathize. He is seeing the same thing.
"It used to be it was something you could really make a living at," he says, "but it's getting much harder. There are many factors involved, but we just aren't getting the audiences we used to have."
Mr. Hall admits that he and his family have even discussed converting the three theatres into retail space.
"The only thing that stops my family from making those changes is that we are in love with the theatre business," he says.
Off-seasons are always slower for Island theatres, especially after the crush of summer crowds. But this winter, among the Halls' three theatres only the Island is open - and usually only on weekends. The Capawock, usually the center of activity in Vineyard Haven in winter, is undergoing renovation and won't open until early spring. The Strand only operates in the summer.
Mr. Hall said the Capawock is getting a cosmetic overhaul, including new carpet, bigger seats and a fresh coat of paint.
Only the two screens at Edgartown Cinemas remain open every night. On weekdays, even without competition, Edgartown Cinemas is not packing them in.
"Is it the weather, the movies, the theatres?" Mr. LaSala asks. "I don't think it's ticket prices."
A ticket for one adult costs eight dollars at both the Island and Edgartown Cinemas. Both offer bargain nights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when the price of admission is cut in half.
Neither theater even bothers to screen a late show in the evening. If you're going to the movies, you'll have to go at either 4 or 7 p.m.
Mr. Hall offers his explanation: new technologies in home entertainment.
"Home theatre, DVD players, video rentals - they all make it more difficult to get people to the movies," he says. "People want their entertainment at home."
So has the Vineyard lost its appetite for going to the movies?
"I'd go a lot more if better movies came here," says Elke Farrell of Oak Bluffs. A self-described avid moviegoer, she believes the reasons for declining numbers lie in the types of movies that come to the Vineyard. If she stays away from the theatres, it is because of a limited selection that she says is mostly aimed at children.
"The first thing I do when I go off-Island is go to a movie because I know there are a bunch I want to see that I know will never come here," she says. "The independent films, the documentaries, they never come. And even if something does get here, you have to wait a month to see it."
Ms. Farrell is not alone in her complaint; Islanders have complained for years about the lack of variety in film on the Vineyard. But few really understand how difficult - and costly - it is to get the less mainstream, independent films, Mr. Hall says.
"Our costs are extremely high, and because we are single screen theatres, our hands are tied," he says.
The process involved in getting new releases to the Vineyard is complicated, costly and sometimes compromising. Strict contractual guidelines imposed by the film and distribution companies usually require theatres to lease a print for weeks at a time, often dictating how many times it must be screened.
Because the Halls and Edgartown Cinemas, which is owned by Entertainment Arts, have agreed to share the films that come to the Vineyard, both use a film buyer, a liaison with the film distribution companies who negotiates the terms of lease of the print. Mr. Hall said the companies sometimes try to dictate what movies end up in his theatres.
"Some of the studios really push a movie on us that we don't want," he says. "That can be another obstacle. The relationship with the film studios is pretty dicey and precarious."
The cost of leasing a film can also be crippling: some studios like Walt Disney take up to 90 per cent of ticket receipts, Mr. Hall says, although the average is closer to 40 per cent. Costs are also higher for the most popular films: leasing a wildly anticipated summer blockbuster on the first week of its release can cost the theatre 70 per cent of its ticket sales.
"That means if the house takes in 60 per cent of the gross, on average, we need between 50 and 75 patrons per screening to pay staff, the film company and utilities," he says. "Currently, we are averaging a lot less than that."
Mr. Hall says he is often forced to choose films that will make the most money.
"And that may not be the best picture out there, but when you keep an average of 60 per cent of your ticket receipts, and often times less than that, you have to go with what fills the theatre."
In the summer, that frequently means family or children's films, Mr. Hall says. In the winter, he says, there is more of a demand for independent and art house films.
He also said his theatres make little on concessions, normally an important source of revenue for mainland cinemas.
"Again, what demographic usually consumes the most candy and popcorn? A family of four, on average, is going to buy more concessions than a couple in their thirties or forties."
So what is left for those other demographics?
That is where Richard Paradise comes into focus. Mr. Paradise runs the Martha's Vineyard Film Society, a member-funded, nonprofit organization that screens independent and foreign films as well as movie classics and documentaries. Mr. Paradise agrees that there are challenges, but says the demand for movies on the Island is as strong as ever.
"There is just a greater variety of films and more venues to choose from," Mr. Paradise says. "It's not just the commercial theatres that are satisfying the public's movie appetite anymore, and because of alternative venues, new digital cinema capabilities and independent promoters emerging across the Vineyard - and that could include the film society, the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival and independent Island filmmakers - I think the cinema opportunities here are very diverse and very rich."
Mr. Paradise's film society, which showed 42 films to more than 3,000 people last year, is just one of the outlets. The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, which is holding a monthlong environmental film series called Sustainable Martha's Vineyard on Tuesday nights in January, is another option.
"Obviously, these types of movies are targeting a slightly different audience than the ones that run in commercial theatres," Mr. Paradise says. "We fill that niche."
Mr. Paradise said the film society also runs into high costs, but instead of percentages, it usually pays one flat rate.
"We often pay $500 to$600 to screen a film once, so at $6 per ticket for nonmembers, we're looking at 85 to 100 people to pay for the film," he says.
These days at Edgartown Cinemas, 85 to 100 people would be a great night at the box office. Still, Mr. LaSala has reason to smile as on a recent early evening, people stream steadily into the second floor theatre. Meet the Fockers and Sideways has attracted a pretty good turnout.
"We've got 50 people in the two theatres right now," he says with a hesitant grin. "That's a good crowd, and it's not even bargain night. Usually . . ." His voice trails off and he shrugs his shoulders before finishing the thought.
"It's a good night."