Originally published in Business Digest, July 1998

Admit Two

by Craig C. Bailey

The process of film distribution and exhibition is one with as many ins and outs, power plays and politics as movie development and production. For nearly 20 years, Gary Ireland and Rick Winston have worked the exhibition side of the aisle, bringing mostly alternative and independent films to central Vermont. As owners of the Savoy Theater and Downstairs Video in Montpelier, they've fought the rising tide of big-budget blockbusters and multiplying multiplexes to serve the fringes of the movie-going community.

Gary Ireland & Rick Winston
At the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, owners Gary Ireland (left) and Rick Winston select a quarter of the 40 films they show each year from the annual Boston Film Festival held in September. Their video rental store, Downstairs Video, shadows the independent flavor of the theater. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

The history of the Savoy leads in two directions: One trail follows Winston and a 1970s central Vermont film society; the other snakes back to the early 1900s, when the building where Winston and Ireland started their business in January 1981, coincidentally, was one of the area's first nickelodeons.

Preview of coming attractions
A native of Yonkers, N.Y., Winston received an English degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1969. He moved here with his brother, Jon, the following year hoping to join the film department at Goddard College, but ended up teaching music at Union 32 High School in East Montpelier. He established Lightning Ridge Films in 1972, and showed classic films on his 16 mm projector in Montpelier's Pavilion auditorium every Friday night for eight years.

The endeavor wasn't a big money-maker -- the admission Winston charged essentially covered expenses -- but it seemed to indicate there was a local audience for classic films.

Since 1973, Ireland had been managing the Goddard College bookstore. After earning a 1960 bachelor of arts in history from The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, Ireland attended theology college at Harvard and served as a minister in Detroit, Mich., for a few years before working for a bookstore there. A visit to friends in Vermont led him to his job at Goddard where he met Winston, who was using family connections to help the bookstore purchase arts supplies.

Winston's film savvy and Ireland's penchant for managing businesses seemed a likely catalyst to up the ante of Lightning Ridge Films. "One of the reasons that I approached Gary about coming in on this project was that he clearly had experience in the real nuts and bolts running of a business day to day, which I really knew very little about," says Winston.

"I was never that much of a film buff," offers Ireland, the shade of a Midwestern accent lingering from his Kansas upbringing. "I regarded bookstores and theaters as similar, arts-related enterprises. But I've become much more interested in film."

Feature presentation
The original arrangement consisted of Jon and Rick Winston as partners, with Ireland as an employee. At the time Jon purchased the building at 26 Main St. in 1980, none of the three realized that 70 years earlier it had been home to the Massucco, a movie theater named after the Italian family who owned it, later renamed the Savoy. "The story goes," Rick Winston says, the Massuccos "were from the Savoy region of Italy."

The space was rumored to have been a pool hall, soda fountain, grocery store and more over the years. So when Emslie the Florist vacated the building before the new Savoy took over, there were plenty of renovations to be done, including constructing the projection booth and building the slope into the floor.

"It was largely a leap of faith," Winston says. "Two-hundred people turn up to see a film society show every Friday night: You can't scientifically extrapolate what that means if you're going to show that movie for two shows for an entire week."

While the new Savoy Theater started out as a repertory theater showing mostly older films -- "Dr. Strangelove," "Singing in the Rain" and "Casablanca" ran that first month -- "Pretty soon we realized," says Ireland, "what people wanted to see were newer films."

A programming shift toward newer movies was one of two essential changes the 130-seat theater underwent in its early years. By 1984, Jon decided to move on, and sold the building to Tony and Joan Beard, now of Waterbury Center. The theater became a partnership between Ireland and Rick before evolving into a corporation, and the Beards still rent space to the Savoy today. "They've been incredibly supportive," says Winston. "They give landlords a good name."

"I don't know about that!" laughs Tony Beard. "They're pretty nice tenants. We love it that they're so attentive to the arts and meticulous on movies." The Savoy shares the building with The Drawing Board and Vermont Clay Studio, which is moving in mid- July. The Beards would like to be able to find another arts- related business to fill the vacancy.

While ranks were shifting within the company in the mid-'80s, the business climate outside was changing drastically. Winston reminds "The wordmultiplex had not entered the vocabulary" when the Savoy opened its doors in '81, but a year or two later, the Capitol Theatre around the corner on State Street split from a single screen into two, and later five. The Nickelodeon opened in Burlington, and the Paramount Theatre in Barre split into two screens.

The influx of screens -- especially the Nickelodeon, which Ireland and Winston say often plays films similar to the Savoy's -- was a tough pill to swallow. It was nearly overshadowed by the explosion of home video in the mid-'80s.

Things came to a head in 1986 when Ireland and Winston closed the theater. "We'd been losing money week after week after week," says Ireland. They sent a letter to upwards of 1,500 people on the Savoy mailing list and painted their plea for public support on their front window, hoping a membership plan would provide the cash infusion the business needed to reopen.

"We didn't know if this would be credible. We felt like a non- profit arts organization, and that isn't how we were organized," admits Ireland. "But we decided that we would just, de facto, act like we're a public arts organization."

"Since then, we do a membership mailing every year," says Winston. "That's really been the margin that's kept us afloat." Since reopening shortly after that 1986 closing, the Savoy's membership has grown to approximately 825, with members paying between $30 and $1,000 for basic to lifetime memberships.

"At first the benefits we gave were pretty stingy, because it was mainly a subsidy," says Ireland, who adds broadened membership benefits save frequent patrons money. "But I would have to say that the majority of the people see it as helping the theater."

Back to the show
When the conversation turns to choosing films, Winston offers most of the analysis. From a modest office on the second floor above the theater, the occasional rumble of passing traffic drowns out his soft-spoken tone. While the owners share programming and management of the Savoy within an oddball patchwork of shifts that constitute 40-hour weeks, Ireland's business background made him a logical choice to focus on the business side, while Winston holds the informal title of artistic director. Twenty mostly part-time employees round out the staff.

In nearly every case, films produced by the "majors," like Columbia, Warner Bros. and Paramount, simply aren't available to art-house theaters like the Savoy, because the big production companies maintain tight relationships with mainstream multiplexes. Furthermore, while the independent film distributors the Savoy typically works with receive 35 to 40 percent of ticket revenue, the majors demand 50 to 60 percent, a cut that shrinks to as low as 35 percent over four or five weeks. That might still mean healthy profit for a theater if it can hold onto the film long enough to reap those higher margins. But the economics don't work well for single-screen theaters.

"We should also say that 90 percent of those movies we don't care to show," adds Ireland.

"Because of all the TV advertising, the movies are kind of front loaded," Winston says of major releases. "They're going to have an enormous first weekend and you'll make up for it at least in the concessions."

Ireland points out that concessions are another area where the Savoy goes against the grain. "We've had non-cola drinks from day one." In addition, he says they've made some "principle decisions" regarding concession prices: "We charge $2.50 for popcorn and that's a lot of profit. There's no way we can justify $5 for it."

Ironically, as intelligent, thoughtful, mature films seem to be becoming more mainstream -- witness "Amistad," "As Good as It Gets," "Good Will Hunting," and "Wag the Dog" -- theaters like the Savoy suffer. "Recently, the whole art scene has changed. A few years ago with 'The Crying Game' and 'Howard's End,' it's obvious an art film can make a lot of money," says Winston.

"We wish that the film makers whose movies we have shown would stick with us and not go to the major distributors because that hurts us," says Ireland, who thinks the recent rash of commercial art films is a fluke. "But they're in it to make more money and that's the way you do it." As a result, movies that have been the Savoy's bread and butter are occasionally out of reach. It hearkens back to an earlier day.

Until several years ago, Winston handled booking for the Savoy -- a process that involves wheeling and dealing with approximately a dozen active distributors of the independent variety of films the theater shows, as well as a bevy of smaller microdistributors. "We didn't have any clout whatsoever," he laments. Consequently, the Savoy had trouble getting films it wanted in a timely fashion.

Jeffrey Jacobs was part of the solution.

Jacobs heads Jacobs Entertainment Inc., a New York City firm that books for 30 screens in 18 locations, including the Savoy. From 1971 to 1973, he operated the Oldfellows Cinema, a 16 mm operation similar to Winston's film society, in what is now the Valley Players Theatre in Waitsfield. "Even though he's very much a New Yorker now," says Ireland, "we feel like there's an understanding."

"Because he books for several theaters," says Winston, "he's got clout."

"Of all my clients, they're among the most gracious and interesting to do business with," Jacobs says. "The Savoy is among the select few that actually respects their audience. I can tell you that most exhibitors in America could care less."

While Winston and Ireland make programming decisions, Jacobs constantly offers suggestions. "It's a give and take," says Ireland, adding the bottom line isn't always the acid test. "We feel obliged to present the best of what's out there even though sometimes we're well aware that that movie is not going to fill the seats."

Straight to video
Making programming decisions is like playing the stock market, and between the bears and the bulls the Savoy's cash flow fluctuates unpredictably depending on how a film is received. The addition of Downstairs Video, a video rental business established below the theater in 1989 and managed by Winston's wife, Andrea Serota, helps smooth out the business cycle. (Ireland's wife, Joanne Latuchie, works for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.) Catering to the same clientele as the Savoy, Downstairs Video also gives its owners the chance to offer films they might not have been able to secure for their big screen. Furthermore, it's helped bring young growing families that dropped out of the movie-going scene back into the Savoy's fold.

Still, operating an art house theater in the Green Mountains, as evidenced by the Savoy's 1986 blackout, is always touch and go. "We've persevered, but it hasn't been easy," says Winston. "The landscape keeps changing."

Winston and Ireland hope a May 15 membership mailing will help the company coffers, on the downswing after installation of an expensive sound system last summer and a slow winter. (The irony of "Titanic" sinking any small theater is, well, ironic.) "With your help," the letter signed by Ireland, Serota and Winston reads, "we can be assured of the Savoy's survival as a cultural beacon in central Vermont."