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Kirkland Parkplace Cinema goes digital with help from city
In the small New York town where Jeff Cole grew up, the movie house was the place to be.
Located at town hall, the community would pay 60 cents to watch a 16 millimeter film while sitting on hard wooden benches.
Cole, the owner of Kirkland Parkplace Cinema 6, is the first to admit times have changed in the movie theater business -- some for the good, others for the bad.
But on Jan. 21, the Kirkland City Council helped keep those changes looking positive when they passed an amendment to the Kirkland Municipal Code, which authorized Cole and co-owner, wife Chris McKenzie, to utilize the seat tax within ticket prices toward the cost of going digital for three years.
“I’d been talking to our mayor at the time, Joan McBride -- she’s a big movie fan and comes to the theater a lot,” Cole said. “She had talked to me about her concern that the movie theater would close.”
With the knowledge that theaters across the country were switching to digital projectors versus the 35 millimeter film equipment, Cole told McBride of the big capital investment and the difficulties his business could face.
Then in December 2013, Paramount Pictures announced it would stop releasing movies on film. Their last 35-millimeter film was “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” and their first digital movie was “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It was time to act.
“The banks would not loan, given the fact that our property lease is written in such a way that it could be terminated when the project gets underway,” Cole said. “Speaking with Joan, she encouraged me to go up and talk to the city manager.”
Forgoing the seat tax for three years wouldn’t finance the entire project, but it would help offset the $250,000 price tag.
City documents state the Finance Department estimates the city will lose $39,000 a year in admissions tax revenue, or $117,000 until June 30, 2017.
“However, if there were no first-run Kirkland movie theaters, the loss would be up to $39,000 annually far beyond 2017 unless and until a new theater opened in the city,” city documents state. “... by approving this amendment, the city will be encouraging first-run movie theaters to remain competitive with other regional theaters and continue to provide community gathering places that are catalysts for other business activity.”
Cole was able to work out a deal with Prudential, his landlord, and will soon implement “before movie advertising,” which they hadn’t had before.
Several local merchants, such as the Ford of Kirkland, had approached Cole in the past about doing advertising before movies.
They also got a great deal of help from Miles McRae, the distributor for Barco, their manufacturer.
“He helped us significantly in structuring a program where we could afford to make the switch,” Coles said.
Movie ticket prices will stay the same, but customers can expect clearer, more vibrant movies with the new digital projectors.
“Somebody who goes to the movie a lot, [they will notice] the pictures are a lot brighter, a lot sharper,” Cole said. “You don’t have all the dirt and scratches that film can produce.”
Cole and McKenzie say going digital also gives them so many more opportunities for their business and the community.
“Changing to digital does give us a lot of potential to do other types of exhibitions,” Cole said. “It gives us the opportunity to support young and local film makers that have produced films digitally, which is a lot less expensive than doing it on film.”
Whether it’s streaming a New York opera, showing Japanese digital animation, collaborating with a new residential complex for artists to show their work or hosting a local film festival, Cole and McKenzie are open to a plethora of ideas and are excited about the endless possibility digital conversion will bring them.
However, trends haven’t always been positive.
“The movie theater exhibition business, especially for an independent, it’s a tough business,” Cole said. “With the streaming of product directly into homes, certainly that has cut -- across the board, across the industry -- attendance.”
Although Hollywood has tried to entice viewers with 3D and digital production, McKenzie explains that the window of time from when a movie is released in theaters to when it’s released on DVD has shrunk, making it easier for people to wait.
“There’s a sense some films are best seen [in theater] and I think people will come out when they think about it,” McKenzie said. “But otherwise, there’s that trend of ‘I don’t need to go, there’s such a brief time before I can see it in the comfort of my own home, or however.’”
Nevertheless, Cole’s “baby,” as McKenzie jokes, has stayed afloat thanks to dedicated patrons that frequent the six-screen theater and loyal employees, such as general manager Chris Shelly, who has been there for 23 years.
Opened as a Sterling Realty Organization theater in 1983 and later operated as a Loews Cineplex, the theater was bought out from bankruptcy in 2001.
Cole worked with the owner, purchased the assets from Loews, negotiated 27 studio contracts in three weeks and opened it as an independently run movie theater just in time to show the first Harry Potter film.
Then in 2007, Cole and McKenzie bought the ownership and have been operating it since.
“I think it would be a real loss if Kirkland lost its movie theater,” Cole said. “I do think a movie theater presents a soul of the community in a way.”
The 35 millimeter film projection equipment before Kirkland Parkplace Cinema 6 converted to digital projectors. RAECHEL DAWSON, Kirkland Reporter