Movie night in Alaska: Bethel latest to gain big screen
A conceptual drawing shows what the new Kipusvik project in Bethel will look like. The building will house a two-screen movie theater and a new Swanson’s store.
Graphic Courtesy Burkhart Croft Architects
The small city of Bethel may not have gotten a Taco Bell as a hoax tried to claim, but something else is on the way: superheroes, car chases, aliens and all sorts of other characters that don’t exist outside of a movie screen.
Bethel Native Corp. has partnered with Omni Enterprises to build the city’s first movie theater. It will share a space with the new Swanson’s store.
Bethel Native Corp. will build and own the 60,000 square foot complex. Omni will lease its section for its Swanson’s store operations. Bethel Native Corp. President and CEO Ana Hoffman said the space will have a deli and other service offerings.
This will be a second-run theater, meaning it will show movies after their initial release dates.
Bethel Native Corp. is aiming for a 2014 opening. Designs are already drawn up by Burkhart Croft Architects of Anchorage.
The piling is expected to arrive in September. Installation should commence through the winter months, and building construction should begin in summer 2013.
“This will be a very significant capital investment into the community,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said the theater could help increase Bethel’s visibility and stimulate the economy.
Hoffman said the Native corporation’s board of directors has been interested in the idea for a theater for several years. She said there was great community support during this time but the project just never materialized until development began last year.
Hoffman said community support for a move theater never waned. Before now, the Bethel community’s movie access has been limited mostly to mom and pop video rental shops and online options.
“Our sense is that there is a need for a service offering of this type so we expect the theater to do well,” Hoffman said.
Bethel has still had other forms of entertainment, like sports during the school year and performances by the local actors guild.
There are also occasional musical venues and dances.
“You’d be surprised at the number of different outlets here,” Hoffman said.
The building will be called Kipuszik, which translates to “place to buy things.” It’s fitting moniker, seeing as how the multi-department Swanson’s will transfer operations there.
This new Swanson’s will replace the existing one, which Omni owns. Omni President Russ Lindsay said that while all the groceries, clothing and electronics will be moved to the new location, the hardware store and marina will remain as stand-alone buildings under the Swanson’s name.
Lindsay said Omni and Bethel Native Corp. have always had a good relationship, so the idea for a combined theater and store feels like a progressive step.
Second runs under Midnight Sun
There are several second-run theaters in the state. Just as the Bethel one will connect to a deli, many of the others offer food and even other entertainment options. The Blue Loon in Fairbanks and Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage are well known for showing cheaper movies a few weeks to a few months after they first show up in the mainstream cinemas. Both also show smaller, independent, foreign and offbeat films as well as offering tasty eats.
The Blue Loon in Fairbanks has been showing second-run movies for almost 20 years. The building also features shows, concerts and a restaurant.
Owner Adam Wool said people prefer to see mainstream movies here over the city’s Regal multiplex and also look to the Blue Loon for arthouse movies that may not appear elsewhere in the city. He said that having a more adult-oriented theater that serves beer and has less kids running around is well received in Fairbanks.
“It sort of filled a niche,” he said.
Wool described the economics of different movies shown. First-run films pay the majority, sometimes around 90 percent, of ticket sales back to the studios. Second-run movies pay about 35 percent back. Those numbers vary depending on location and movies.
Wool said that the longer you show a movie, the less percentage you have to pay back.
Although the Blue Loon specializes in second-run movies, it does occasionally get first crack. Wool said he was showing “The Artist” before Regal.
The Blue Loon opened in 1994. When Wool took over in 1997, the place was still using 16-millimeter equipment.
Wool said the distribution company carried all of the major releases in 16mm, allowing him to keep showing Hollywood films.
He later got a 35mm projector. He continued using the same distribution company for a while but eventually switched to getting films directly from the studios.
In Juneau, the Gold Town Nickelodeon is unique in Alaska. It’s the only theater in the state dedicated full-time to arthouse and independent films.
Gold Town Nickelodeon has a reputation for drawing the crowds that really love films. Besides movies, the theater hosts the Juneau Underground Motion Picture Society’s festivals for locally shot short films. This festival reaches its 10-year anniversary this year.
Manager Collette Costa the support for this venue is surprisingly high for a city this size. She said many similar cities in other parts of the country can’t support this kind of theater.
“We have a very loyal, consistent audience here that literally is the only we can stay open,” she said.
This building was original built as a laundry in 1910. Lisle Hebert took over and turned it into a theater 15 years ago along with the original intention of showing a single movie, aptly titled “Gold Town.” He then decided to start keeping it open all year. They were particularly interested in showing foreign films and documentaries, which were not common in Juneau. It ran that way for 10 years.
The theater later faced closure until it was sold to the current owner, Mark Ridgway, in 2009. Costa said it’s slowly expanded into a full-time theater. While it once only had stock for one movie, it now has four different titles at once.
Gold Town Nickelodeon holds a special interest to Costa as a cinema fan. She has a film degree from Wayne State University in Detroit and particularly appreciates the arthouse fare.
Costa is working on bringing a chapter of the Sundance Institute’s Arthouse Convergence to Gold Town. She would also like to start a silent film series with accompanying live music in the winter.
She said the theater’s ultimate goal would be to convince actor Bill Murray to pay a visit. They would even rename it “Bill Murray Theatre” for this.
A cinematic history
Alaska has a unique history with its theaters. As Bethel proves, many of the smaller cities are eager to join the industry. Several of these smaller venues have only one or two screens. Some last. Some don’t.
Rand Thornsley, a 40-year veteran of Alaska’s theater industry, outlined some of the state’s colorful history in this business. Thornsley has been a part of the development or operations for several of these theaters. His most recent Alaska job was director of film programming and facilities manager for Bear Tooth Theatrepub.
Thornsley has taken over the Liberty Theatre in Camas, Wash. He still does consulting work and film programming in Alaska.
Alaska’s oldest theater is Gross Alaska in Southeast. Today, the company owns two small theaters in Juneau that total seven screens, and a two-screen one in Ketchikan. Gross Alaska converted to digital last year.
Thornsley said Gross Alaska in Juneau is probably the longest running family-owned theater in the state. Its extensive history is detailed in a chronicle called “The Movie Man” that’s in the theater’s business office.
The Homer Theatre prides itself as the oldest continuously operating theater.
Ketchikan used to have a competing theater to the Gross called the Revilla. The single-screen theater has since closed. Thornsley worked with the manager there.
Castle Mountain Entertainment in Wrangell, Orpheum Theatre in Kodiak and Gold Coast Cinema in Nome all have one screen.
Petersburg ‘s Northern Nights Theatre is a nonprofit. It was started as a way to fill a need after the commercial theater closed. The theater now works in partnership with the school district.
Thornsley on theaters
Thornsley worked with the Fletcher family in Southcentral. The Fletchers own the Liberty Theatre in Seward, which was built at least 50 years ago. Thornsley said the family has been part of many of Alaska’s theaters, however, Marie Fletcher chose to not comment.
Thornsley said the family also worked with the company that owned the now-defunct Center Theatre in Anchorage. That space is now a housing station at Minnesota Drive and Spenard Road.
“The Center Theatre did not operate very long,” he said.
Anchorage has had several theaters over the years that fit this description. The original Denali Theatre was located on 4th Avenue but was destroyed by the 1964 earthquake.
“The Bear Tooth was originally called the Denali. That was the rebuild for the old one that went down,” Thornsley said. “It opened in 1965 with ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’”
The theater went through a number of successions until the current owners bought it in the late 1990s.
Another Anchorage theater, the Empress, was built in 1917 by businessman August Eugene “Cap” Lathrop. Lathrop was an opponent of statehood. The Empress stood near or at where the Legislative Information Office stands today.
The Fireweed Theatre in Anchorage, which closed in 2010 due to the incoming Regal theater at Tikahtnu Commons, was Alaska’s largest theater when it opened in 1965. It started with one screen and underwent several screen additions and renovations.
“The Fireweed in Anchorage was considered the biggest screen, the biggest seating capacity auditorium in the state up until its demise,” Thornsley said, adding that the Bear Tooth had the biggest screen for a short time after that.
Fireweed’s neighbor was a drive-in theater that also hosted rock shows. This is also gone, and storage units have taken its place.
Regal Tikahtnu Stadium 16 now holds the city’s only IMAX theater. The only other IMAX screen in Alaska is at the Goldstream Stadium 16 in Fairbanks, also a Regal theater. Tikahtnu is also the only Regal theater here built from ground up rather than redoing an existing building.
Thornsley said the Fairbanks theater was also built as a single-screen and was even smaller than Fireweed before Regal took over it.
Regal Totem Cinemas 8, which is a second-run theater, has its own history. It was built with three screens and gained the other five during the 1980s when the Portland-based Luxury Theatres took it over.
Totem 8 sits on property that used to be the Billiken Drive-In. However, the owner, Ed Hanby, couldn’t secure major releases due to his competitor, Lathrop, who later sold to a company called Wometco, having a monopoly on Anchorage’s movie products. Therefore, he ran exploitation and softcore pornography.
“And he made a lot of money,” Thornsley said.
Hanby also faced legal issues and controversy.
Thornsley said Barrow — the setting for Alaska-based movies such as “Big Miracle” — used to have a theater, but it hasn’t operated in years.