Closed since Christmas, the Varsity will re-open Friday!
  • Kelly O
  • Closed since Christmas, the Varsity will reopen on Friday!

News just arrived at Stranger HQ that the U-District's Varsity Theater, which has been closed since just after Christmas, will reopen on Friday, February 13 under new management. Bainbridge Island-based Far Away Entertainment, which also operates eight other theaters in non-urban markets—including West Seattle's Admiral, and screens on Bainbridge Island, in Anacortes, and elsewhere—announced today that it has taken over the venerable triplex, installing digital projection, digital sound, a new concessions counter and box office, and repairing the existing seats. Far Away Entertainment managing partner Jeff Brein emphasized that Friday's reopening—with screenings of Oscar nominated films Foxcatcher, Whiplash, and The Theory of Everything—will be a "very soft" relaunch, with a grand reopening planned for March. He told me that the company's plans for the Varsity include first-run and repertory programming, live events, a strong relationship with the University of Washington, and partnerships with the local film programming and production communities. It's an ambitious plan for an industry that has been laid low by the on-demand, small-screen nature of 21st-century entertainment, but Brein, whose company has been showing films around (though not actually in) Seattle proper for 18 years, is sanguine—if realistic. When he called to talk about the new Varsity, I offered him my congratulations. "Congratulate me if it makes money," he laughed.

Brein told me that though the Varsity has been furnished with new digital equipment, it has retained both 35 mm and 16 mm projectors both for repertory programming and for new releases that offer incentives to theaters that still exhibit those formats. (He cited Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which was released a day early to cinemas that were prepared to project it on film.) He also said the theater will operate without an agreement with the projectionists union, IATSE Local 15.

Future plans for the new Varsity include the installation of a 3-D-ready silver screen in the main auditorium ("We'll use it sparingly," he promised), and "satellite-delivered alternative entertainment" (live simulcasts of opera, theater, ballet, and concerts) from a sometimes controversial company called Fathom Events.

He made it abundantly clear that his company's chief strategy involved reaching out to the student body that lives and studies just two blocks away.

"The theater's proximity to the university is tremendously appealing," he said. "Not to be critical of anybody, it's possible that earlier operators [of the Varsity] didn't do as much as they could to integrate that audience."

Brien said the new Varsity will feature inexpensive student ticket pricing ($8 at all times, compared to a $10.25 adult ticket and $8.25 for seniors and matinees). He also intends the Varsity to program "a certain number" of "small" live events—"a couple of musicians, poetry readings, that sort of thing"—in an effort to provide a "young, non-affluent audience" with entertainment that isn't "convenient or even possible to download."

On the question of competition with existing neighborhood businesses—such as the small but beloved Grand Illusion Cinema, the luxe Sundance Cinemas, and the Neptune, which is operated by entertainment powerhouse STG—Brein said that the key lies in "respecting each other's common territory" in the interest of "the common good." He was quick to point out the "small, few, and far between" live events he has in mind for the Varsity will pose no threat to Neptune programming, and that a significant percentage of UW students are underage, and therefore can't see anything at Sundance, which is 21+. He expressed a desire to partner with the Grand Illusion, the Northwest Film Forum, TheFilmSchool, SIFF, and any other facet of the local film community that has an interest in "showing films in a movie theater instead of a computer or a phone. If we can accommodate them, we'll do it."

As for the all-important question of popcorn, a field indisputably dominated by Landmark Theatres (which used to run the Varsity, the Neptune, and the Metro—now the site of Sundance Cinema), Brein told me that all Far Away Entertainment theaters pop Orville Redenbacher kernels (as does Landmark) using either canola or coconut oil, depending on the location and the popper hardware (Landmark reportedly uses sunflower seed oil), but that "the jury is out" with regard to the relative flavor/crunch/health ratios associated with the different oils. The new Varsity, he said, will "probably start with coconut oil and see how it goes. We'll play with it." According to the company, real butter will also be available at the Varsity, but not for "a few weeks."