Last Sunday, independently run movie theater Ark Lodge Cinemas sent out a distressing tweet:
The theater, which has been running for seven years in Columbia City under its current ownership, is facing what seems to be insurmountable financial challenges. They tweeted, "Business is down more than one third for over the third month, so what we could really use is hugs with cash attached to them if you know what we mean."
Yesterday, I called owner and operator David McRae to chat about the difficulties of running an independent theater and how Seattleites can help Ark Lodge continue screening films.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stranger: So I saw the tweet—what's going on?
McRae: As of today we still can't pay our rent.
We're lucky we've had good landlords. The people who own the building want us to succeed, but there is a point where they can't keep waiting for us.
So far, this year has been down for the entire industry. We're looking at a business drop that, for us, is down more than $250,000 compared to last year at this time. So, we're feeling the hit more than anybody. For independent theaters, that's kind of why there are so few of them—eventually there's a point where your peaks can't ride you through your valleys.
Why do you think business has dropped so significantly?
The movies are just not bringing in the same amount of people that they did last year. For us, it's a harder thing to try and recover from. We already have challenges operating an independent movie theater in a neighborhood that is going through a lot of changes.
A lot of our patrons who have been with us for the last few years are moving out. The new ones who are coming in aren't really fully aware of all the amenities they have in their neighborhood. And we have other challenges. One of the things that we haven't been able to do is get to the point where we could serve beer and wine. That's the number one amenity people request—they're used to it now with theaters.
You're a "first-run neighborhood movie house"—are there any particular challenges with running mainstream, big-budget films?
We've gotten to a point where we can't keep up with the demands that the major studios want. If you want to open up a Marvel film and have that big, front-loaded movie, it's going to make all of its money in the weekend when it's first released. The studio is going to tell you, "This is our tentpole feature, you're going to have to cough up so much money as a guarantee so that we can get you a print…to play the film and we want 65% of your gross."
So, what happened to us was we couldn't make the progression from playing first-run family film[s]. The last one that we could afford to get in an opening first run was Aladdin. Well, the audiences didn't show up for Aladdin, so Aladdin couldn't get us to a point where we could open Toy Story 4. So we had to open Toy Story 4 later, and Toy Story didn't help us get to a point where we could open Lion King because we couldn't come up with the guarantee that the studios have a right to demand.
The real heartbreaker was opening up Sony's Spiderman: Homecoming. It did okay but it didn't make enough money for us to guarantee what the studio demanded to open Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood. So we couldn't open OUATIH which would have probably made pretty good gross for us here… so we had to opt out of it.
Have you ever thought about turning it into a non-profit or switching up the business model?
When you're crossing that rubicon to go from for-profit to non-profit, you have to have a board of directors, you have to have an educational facility and we're just not—I would like to make it as an entrepreneur. I would love to make that so-called "American Dream" of making it on my own, but what I've realized is that you never make it on your own. You need people with you to get you there.
We have decided to hold a fundraiser. Our goal is to raise $50,000 between now and the end of September. Here’s how you can contribute:
Show up. Bring a friend. Buy tickets. Buy some popcorn. Repeat.
Team Ark Lodge. #showupfortheArkLodge
— Ark Lodge Cinemas (@ArkLodgeCinemas) August 15, 2019
If you were going to recommend a film for someone to come in and see at Ark Lodge, what would you recommend?
I'll always recommend the next movie we're opening. We're opening up Echo in the Canyon this Friday. We're also playing Where'd You Go Bernadette?. We're holding onto The Farewell. The only other thing we need to accomplish our fundraiser is for people to show up.
Any words you'd like to end on?
We need the goodwill of the community and they've given us lots of goodwill. And it's been a rewarding experience and a pleasure running a movie theater for almost seven years now. A lot of people love what we're doing and we see people here on a weekly basis. We just need a few hundred more!