The abundance of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video and iTunes means cinephiles don’t have to leave the comforts of their living rooms to watch a movie. Despite this convenience, Asheville-area residents venture out to local independent theaters on a daily basis and continue a long-standing communal tradition.
“The experience is what sets us apart. Older generations of people grew up going to movies and know the shared experience of seeing films with other people, of hearing laughter or applause and crying,” says Neal Reed, manager and programmer of the Fine Arts Theatre. “Sharing the experience with others is something that younger generations don’t appreciate as much and aren’t used to because they have home theaters that are big.”
The Fine Arts depends on repeat local customers who’ve become loyal to the old, downtown theater with a deco feel, a working curtain and masking that moves and allows the film to be projected as its creators intended. Also key is Reed’s commitment to screening the best first-run art and independent films possible in a clean, friendly environment with affordable ticket prices and concessions — including beer and wine, available since the two-screen theater opened in 1996. Over that time, he compares the Fine Arts’ role in cultivating Asheville’s moviegoing tastes with Highland Brewing Co. teaching the city’s beer drinkers to value and understand quality beverages.
“We showed films exclusively for 20 years that no one else would play, and we developed an audience and really showed them what good film was. Just as Asheville got used to drinking good beer and appreciated it, we expanded the moviegoing public’s taste for film,” Reed says.
“You can travel to any city within a two-hour radius and you will see that Asheville has about a 500 percent more attendance per capita than all these other cities, including Knoxville, Johnson City and Greenville, S.C. In a huge geographic area and into Virginia, there’s just nothing that compares with Asheville’s movie consumption, and we think we’ve played a big part in developing that.”
Fellow local independent theaters, including Grail Moviehouse, have tapped into that sector of the population. Co-owners Steve White and Davida Horwitz modeled their three-screen cinema after several other small independent theaters across the country, each of which substituted creativity for capital to bring a distinct moviegoing experience to their communities.
“At a multiplex, the trend is luxury amenities, assigned seats and more elaborate menus,” White says. “As mainstream audiences grow to expect more of this, there is a subset who long for a movie house with a soul, run by movie lovers and not beholden to stockholders.”
But even with this loyal base, challenges are rampant. In 2012, the Fine Arts and the Flat Rock Cinema weathered the transition from celluloid to digital projection, which Reed says killed about 35 percent of independent theaters and was an intentional move to drive out competition for corporations. Though the pricey new equipment put the Flat Rock in debt, co-owner Howard Molton says that, in hindsight, switching to digital was the best thing his theater has done in that it allowed quicker access to more films and less competition with multiplexes.
All three theaters have fortified their patron base by hosting fundraisers and giving back to the communities that support them. The Fine Arts and the Flat Rock also offer discounted tickets on Tuesdays, and boosting attendance at each establishment is the subscription service MoviePass. Subscribers pay a monthly fee of $10 or less — offers have varied since the company lowered its price from $30 per month last August — and may see one 2-D movie per day. Customers pay for the movie with a debit card provided by MoviePass, and for now, the entirety of the ticket sale goes to the theater. Reed says that the company is losing millions of dollars to build its model and anticipates that once MoviePass collects customer statistics, it will approach theaters with the data of increased business and threaten to refuse MoviePass access unless the theaters pay them a percentage of their income.
Another potential challenge is the possibility of an Alamo Drafthouse by the Asheville Mall. Reed says the theater chain’s stance of playing “any movie, any time, anywhere with anyone in any market” could wipe out the geographic exclusivity zones that currently prevent two theaters within a certain radius from showing the same films, thereby cutting into business for every theater in town. As such, he’s open to tweaking certain details at the Fine Arts but will uphold the theater’s core values.
“We’re always looking at what we can do. We want to be forward-thinking and always value what customers want. Right now, our customer base really appreciates the fact that we’re not what some theaters are becoming,” Reed says. “I’ve heard over the years, more times than I can count, people tell me that one of the reasons they moved to Asheville was the Fine Arts Theatre. And I still hear it almost on a daily basis. It makes you feel good to be able to provide those services that people enjoy.”