On March 10, Rick Winston, co-owner of Montpelier's Savoy Theater, sent an unprecedented message to all 1300 or so names on its mailing list. Headed "From the Savoy: something like a 'market survey,'" the email began with a quote from "famed impresario Sol Hurok [who] once said after a poorly attended performance, 'If nobody wants to go to something, nothing on earth is going to stop them.'"
Ominous words in the theater business. Winston's missive continued, "Recently, the Savoy showed this season's three most popular films in the 'art film market' in a row: Volver, Notes on a Scandal and Pan's Labyrinth. In each case, a two-week run, while moderately successful, fell far below our expectations (and below the returns at other theaters similar to ours)." The email concluded with a request for movie-goers to answer a series of questions, aimed at determining whether "there is a major shift occurring in Central Vermont audiences."
Winston and his wife, co-owner Andrea Serota, haven't yet tabulated the 150 responses the informal survey received. They have seen some public feedback, though. Winston says a recent letter to the editor in The Montpelier Bridge reacted to the email with a cry of alarm about the future of the Savoy, which has been bringing art films to Montpelier since 1981.
Winston isn't happy with the tone of the letter, which he says "totally took what we said and ran with it." His survey was not meant to imply that "these films had performed poorly," he explains, only that the highly anticipated releases hadn't lived up to expectations. For example, "We have friends who run a theater in Waterville, Maine, with a similar audience to ours. They said Pan's Labyrinth was doing great, bringing in a big high school audience. It just didn't happen for us."
But Pan's Labyrinth appears to have done well at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, where it's been playing since January 19. At the Savoy, Pan's Labyrinth arrived later - February 23 - and stayed two weeks. (Volver and Notes also had respectable runs at the Roxy.)
Are central Vermonters rushing to the premieres of these films in Burlington, and skipping the Savoy? "I don't think so," Winston says, "especially in winter when people are not ready to drive to other places. We have had it proven over and over to us that if it's a film people want to see, there's enough people to go around." He notes the success of Little Miss Sunshine - a sleeper hit in Burlington that also played for five weeks at the Savoy.
So what's keeping some people away? Winston devised the survey to find that out, but he has some guesses. To start with, "There's undoubtedly a resistance to subtitled films," he points out. Then there's the question of violence. While "the 12-to-25 audience laps it up," Winston says, older movie-goers may avoid it. He recalls a patron who approached him on the street to ask about the level of violence in The Last King of Scotland, currently showing at the Savoy. "It got me curious whether the word had gotten out on Pan's Labyrinth that that was a particularly violent film."
"We don't want to make people feel guilty for not being here," Winston says of the survey. But, he notes, electronic communication offers theater owners a chance to ask potential audiences a crucial, logistically tricky question: "Why aren't you here?"
Better news for the Savoy comes from the returns for the 2007 Green Mountain Film Festival, of which Winston is co-founder and programmer. Managing Director Donald Rae says that audiences for the fest, which ran from March 16 to 25, "were substantially increased on last year, by about 16 percent overall." At the Savoy, 30 of 51 screenings sold out; 11 of 46 sold out at the City Hall venue. Rae says GMFF organizers added 10 screenings this year to accommodate demand, but have no plans to move popular films to larger venues. "We're quite keen to preserve the festival's character, which is that it's very intimate," he says. "That's very important to us."