When the New York-based Madstone Theaters closed its operations in Cary and everywhere else on June 7, the Triangle’s art house screens were reduced by a third, from 18 to 12. But the local facility’s owner, York Properties of Raleigh, immediately went to work finding a replacement tenant. The Independent has learned that the realtor has received several serious bids and a resurrected movie theater may resume operations as soon as mid-August–and probably no later than September 1–according to Smedes York, the realty firm’s president. “We’re actively considering three or four proposals,” York said in a phone interview Monday. “We’re evaluating their financial backing and what type of movies they want to bring in. We want to feel comfortable that they’re going to be successful.”
York Properties received signed proposals last week and will spend this week evaluating them. York would not discuss individual bidders, but he did say that there are both locals and out-of-towners in the running. “We expect to have the theater open within 30 days,” he says.
When Madstone laid off 180 workers and shut down its operations at its nine theaters across the country, York Properties was left with a facility that, in the words of onetime Cary Madstone publicist Barbara Kingsbury, was a “turnkey operation,” meaning that all of the projection equipment and concessions machines were left in the building, waiting to be reactivated. Kingsbury, a fixture on the local film scene, was hired shortly after the Cary theater opened, and last winter was an early casualty of the company’s belt-tightening.
The equipment, which Madstone installed when they moved into the building in 2002, was left behind because, as York put it in a phone interview last month, “They defaulted on their lease–they had several more years left.”
The ready infrastructure would seem to make the facility an attractive one for new investors, for they would not have to sink money into outfitting the theater. But not everyone sees a potential moneymaker in the 30,000-square-foot, six-screen building, located by a small strip mall on Cary Towne Boulevard.
Bill Peebles is one skeptic. “Cary clearly could not support six [specialty] screens,” he said in a June phone interview. Peebles, who owns part or all of several theaters in the Triangle including the Colony, Mission Valley, Six Forks and the Rialto in Raleigh and the Lumina in Chapel Hill, was widely thought to be the obvious local candidate to take over the Madstone facility, until he quickly and publicly disavowed interest.
For Peebles, Madstone is burdened with the fiscal realities of multiplexes without the benefit of blockbusters like Spider-Man 2 and Harry Potter to pump in heavy cash. The multiplexes all have the same two problems, he said: “Tremendous overhead and tremendous debt service. To keep the hungry animal going, they suck up everything in sight.”
“The industry rule of thumb is that [a multiplex] costs a half million per screen,” Peebles says. “Pick your amortization table, your interest rate, and you can figure out what they have to pay each month.”
The theater was built in the York-owned Cary Village Square in the early 1980s, originally as a four-screener. It was a mainstream movie house operated by United Artists until it closed several years ago. The property languished, with few prospective new tenants, until Madstone arrived in 2002.
“I don’t see anyone making it out there,” Peebles says. “Raleigh is as saturated as it can be for what it is.” Peebles has a point. Greater Raleigh now has over 100 movie screens, with another multiplex on the way, the Marquis North Hills 14, which is due to open this fall–in competition with the Consolidated Grande (15 screens) and the Eastern Federated Brier Creek (14 screens), both located on U.S. Highway 70.
Another example of the Triangle’s movie screen saturation is evident to anyone taking on the Madstone facility: There’s a 20-screen multiplex, the Consolidated Crossroads 20, a mile down the road. “It’s certainly competition,” says York. “A lot of it has to do with what movies you’re able to get.”
Indeed, getting the hit films is all-important, especially in an art house environment where theaters can endure weeks or months of low-performing films like Love the Hard Way, World Traveler or Broken Wings before box office deliverance arrives in the form of Lost in Translation, My Big Fat Greek Wedding or, of course, Fahrenheit 9/11. Although Madstone was able to land, for example, Lost in Translation, they were unable to get an opening weekend booking of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film which opened successfully at other art houses in the Triangle and at the Crossroads 20 down the street.
The business of booking movies is an arcane one, and no specialty exhibitor in the area has complete control over his or her offerings. But Madstone, as a newcomer to the area, had to contend with the long-established relationships other theaters had with distributors. “We were the new guy,” says Erin Owens, who was one of the last four New York staff members left after a March layoff of about 15 main office workers. “It was a circle of oppression. You have to establish growth, but you can’t establish growth until you get the titles.” Another knowledgeable insider reports that Madstone–either out of necessity or ignorance–paid above-market rates for the right to rent many films.
Another issue is the demographic makeup of Cary, a suburban bedroom community for Raleigh and R.T.P., which has fewer of the students, artists/intellectuals and childless adults who keep the more urban art houses in business. However, during her tenure as Madstone’s Cary publicist, Kingsbury found ways to turn Cary’s unique demographic to an advantage. Discovering a large South Asian community in the vicinity, she partnered with local entrepreneurs to show Bollywood films, a venture that generated phenomenal enthusiasm and revenue.
Despite Peebles’ pessimism about the ability of Madstone’s business model to thrive, Kingsbury is more optimistic. “If Madstone had been run as a local, mom and pop operation, it would still be in business,” she said in a recent telephone interview. And while Owens can’t attest for the record how profitable the Cary theater was, she does say that “the problems with Madstone were at the corporate level.” An additional drain on Madstone’s treasury was the company’s effort to develop a film production division. The one film they saw to completion was Rhinoceros Eyes, an expensive and nearly unwatchable bomb.
One hopeful portent for the Cary facility’s viability is that, while Madstone managed to sell only its Tampa theater before closing, its closing announcement singled out the Cary and San Diego theaters as strong candidates for finding buyers. Indeed, the San Diego theater reopened under new ownership a week later. (The other six locations were Ann Arbor, Mich.; Atlanta; Albuquerque, N.M.; Salt Lake City; Denver; and Chandler, Ariz.)
The most dispiriting thing about the demise of Madstone, aside from the dismay any cinephile would feel at losing art house options, is that over 800 subscribers to its unique membership program were left in the lurch (although the Carolina Theatre of Durham has announced that they will honor those passes). According to Kingsbury, many members were out-of-towners, movie lovers from as far away as Greenville or Little Washington, who would make the trip in once a month or so to catch the new indie and foreign flicks.
Perhaps it’s that kind of attention to indigenous movie-going patterns that the national company just couldn’t cultivate efficiently. And maybe attentive local ownership will be the key to enabling a revived, locally-owned version of the Madstone multiplex model to thrive. Stay tuned.