- via Kickstarter
SPOILER: It's because of their crappy old seats!
But first, Cinema 21 owner Tom Ranieri wants you to know everything's going great at NW Portland's long-standing, long-loved arthouse theater, which last year expanded from one screen to three.
"Feedback has been really strongly positive," Ranieri says of the expansion. "It's working out the way we wanted it to."
Since the expansion, Cinema 21's had a lot more flexibility with their bookings—and as a result, has become an even more integral part of Portland's film scene. Letting the scope of Boyhood wash over me in Cinema 21's big, original auditorium is one of my favorite filmgoing experiences of this past year, but so was seeing Obvious Child in one of the newer, smaller auditoriums—where just about every single joke hit big thanks, in part, to the more intimate, low-key setting the room provided.
But Ranieri says those two new auditoriums have had an unexpected side effect: They made Cinema 21's original, 88-year-old auditorium look run-down in comparison. While the picture and sound in that big auditorium are fine, Ranieri says, the older, decidedly less comfortable seats have become a problem both for audiences and for the representatives of film distributors, who keep an eye on the conditions of the theaters showing their movies. And continuing to constantly repair the seats isn't feasible, Ranieri says: Cinema 21's current seats are over 50 years old, which means replacement parts are tough to find whenever hinges snap or springs break.
As hard as it might be to believe when one's trapped in a theater alight with iPhone screens, Ranieri says distributors "are mindful of what the theatrical experience is" and want audiences "to see their products in the best light." That goes for literal light—as in, if the projector and screen are bright enough—as well as for sound, cleanliness, and comfort. And seats—which, Ranieri says, distributors who've been by to check out Cinema 21's new auditoriums were less than impressed by when they saw the original auditorium.
"We have to get it up to the level where not only the distributors but also the public are expecting [it to be]," Ranieri says. Since Portland theaters often compete to get first-run movies (films that play at Cinema 21 might just as easily end up at Living Room Theaters, Fox Tower 10, or the Hollywood Theatre), if a distributor feels a theater isn't up to snuff, they'll likely let other theaters book their films until the one needing improvements either shapes up or goes out of business.
While it's relatively easy for massive chain theaters to keep their auditoriums in good shape, it can be trickier for indie theaters, which scramble not only with chains but also with other indies to book films and make profits. In convincing distributors that a particular theater is the best fit for a certain film or a certain market, "theatrical experience" plays a major role. Ranieri hopes replacing the seats in the original auditorium will not only help the auditorium "speak to the whole" with the rest of the expanded theater, but make Cinema 21's old auditorium as attractive to distributors as its new ones.
It won't be cheap. Unlike the Hollywood Theatre, which lucked into a bunch of old Regal seats (and asked for help from patrons to install them), there aren't a slew of unwanted seats just lying around for Ranieri to gather up.
Hence the Kickstarter. For just the lower part of Cinema 21's main auditorium—not counting the balcony—Ranieri's estimating $70,000 will be needed to purchase, ship, and install the theater's new seats, which he adds will be "a little wider," rock back and forth, and feature cup holders—in other words, the kind of seats that patrons at most theaters have become accustomed to. "That number is daunting to me," Ranieri admits, before dropping an even more daunting number—that to renovate the auditorium's balcony as well, it'd be "well over $100,000." That's why, he says, this Kickstarter is only targeted at renovating the original auditorium's lower section.
As for why Ranieri's turning to Kickstarter, it comes back to those new auditoriums: Last year's expansion was expensive, Ranieri says, and after going all-in on the new auditoriums, he and his partners feel it would be "imprudent to increase our depth."
"I wish we could have done it all at once, but we couldn't," Ranieri says. And waiting to save up the money, he adds, isn't an option—the longer the old seats in the main auditorium stay, Ranieri says, the more movies Cinema 21 could miss out on.
"Some of it goes against my natural unwillingness to ask for money," Ranieri says. But at the same time, he notes his "period of stewardship" of Cinema 21 has lasted since 1987—and right now, he's focused on how to get Cinema 21 get to its 100th birthday. "What does it take to get there and beyond?" Ranieri asks. "Can we leverage all that goodwill into something that will help the theater exist and thrive in the future?"