Starting April 13, the Laurelhurst Theater is going first-run.
For decades, the much-loved theater—which has stood on the corner of Burnside and NE 28th since 1923—has been Portland’s go-to spot for second-run movies, along with cheap tickets and plenty of pizza and beer. But soon, those movies will be new releases—and while tickets will be a little spendier, there’ll still be plenty of pizza and beer.
“We’ve been here since 2000, and at the time, it was $3 movies and Netflix wasn’t a big thing,” says Woody Wheeler, who, along with Prescott Allen, has owned the Laurelhurst for the past 18 years. But those 18 years have seen big shifts in the movie business—shifts that, Wheeler says, have “definitely affected our attendance.”
“The industry has changed,” Wheeler explains. “There are so many new options for people to see movies, that now they aren’t wanting to wait as long as they used to. Sometimes a film will be out digitally, and we won’t even be able to show it. We wanted to make the change so we’re more appealing for everybody.”
Take, for example, Wes Anderson’s latest.
“We’d love to have Isle of Dogs right now,” Wheeler tells me. “If we stayed second-run, we’d get that months from now. And then the Wes Anderson fans who wanted to see that would’ve already seen it.”
Under the Laurelhurst’s current setup, movies can take weeks or months to play at the theater. Frequently, second-run theaters won’t get a film until its distributors have already released it on iTunes and Amazon.
“We kinda just want to be fresh again,” says Wheeler. “We haven’t been a first-run theater since 1979. Up to then it was first-run, and it’s been second-run ever since. So this will give us a chance to show movies when we want to show ’em.”
“We haven’t been a first-run theater since 1979. Up to then it was first-run, and it’s been second-run ever since. So this will give us a chance to show movies when we want to show ’em.”
With newer movies come higher costs—but those at the Laurelhurst know its current ticket price of $4 is a big part of the theater’s appeal.
“We appreciate all the support we’ve gotten over the years, and [we know that] part of our value is being affordable,” Wheeler says. The ticket prices the Laurelhurst will start charging on April 13—$9 for general admission, $6.50 for seniors and kids, and $6 for all Tuesday screenings—are, Wheeler says, as cheap as they could keep them.
“This is the lowest admission price that the studios will let us in at to be first-run,” says Wheeler. “So we do have an eye on being a good value.”
Wheeler adds that prices for beer, popcorn, and candy will remain the same, and that moviegoers will notice a few improvements, too—like the fact the theater has undergone “a substantial amount of remodeling over the past few months,” along with ongoing renovations such as new seats and floors in its two smallest auditoriums. (This follows a recent remodel of the women’s restroom: “It’s pretty sweet, with chandeliers,” says Wheeler. “It’s getting rave reviews.”) Wheeler adds that thanks to a 2013 upgrade to digital projection, the Laurelhurst’s projection and sound systems are already comparable to those at first-run theaters.
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And thankfully, one thing that sets the Laurelhurst apart from most first-run theaters will stay the same: “We’re still going to do five-minute previews,” Wheeler promises, “and keep our on-screen advertising the same, as far as [featuring] local companies and art.”
The theater will also add online ticketing and more showtimes, including matinees all week, and extend the hours minors are welcome at the theater, so long as they’re accompanied by a parent or guardian. “A family can come in at 7 o’clock and see whatever new blockbuster that families want to see,” says Wheeler. “But it’s still 21 and over [later] at night.”
About those blockbusters: When I ask Wheeler if he knows what the Laurelhurst will be showing on April 13, he laughs. “No, which is kind of hair-pulling!” he says. “We don’t know yet. We definitely have a list out with our booking agent, and we’re gonna see.”
Going forward, he expects the Laurelhurst to book titles similar to ones they currently show—they just won’t be old news by the time the theater gets them.
“I think it’s going to be fairly similar to what we do now, with the exception that we won’t be able to see what films have done at other places,” says Wheeler. “We’re still going to look for the same kind of variety we have now, whether that’s Hollywood blockbusters, arthouse, or independent films. We’re still going to have the same eye as we have now. We’re just going to have to base what we think these films are going to do based on our experience…. I think that will get us good films most of the time.”
“We’re still going to look for the same kind of variety we have now, whether that’s Hollywood blockbusters, arthouse, or independent films. We’re still going to have the same eye as we have now.”
And while there aren’t immediate plans to continue showing repertory titles at the Laurelhurst—something that, under Wheeler and Allen, has been a reliable element of the theater’s programming—Wheeler isn’t counting them out.
“We’re working on something for repertory titles,” he says, “but I can’t really talk about it yet. We know that’s a part of our business that we want to remain true to.”
The Laurelhurst’s shift to first-run comes after after a slew of changes to Portland’s movie scene—from the switch from 35mm to digital to the gradual shift of McMenamins’ second-run theaters to first-run. With the Laurelhurst now heading that direction, a city that was once full of second-run beer theaters will only have a scant few, like Montavilla’s Academy Theater.
The change to first-run also puts the Laurelhurst in more direct competition with other first-run theaters on Portland’s east side, including the Hollywood Theatre, the Bagdad Theater, and Lloyd Cinemas. (That’s not to mention what appears to be a new theater on Powell and SE 39th, as hinted at in a building permit submitted to the city last October by C2K Architecture, a firm that’s previously worked on three different Cinetopia locations.)
Wheeler knows the changes at the Laurelhurst will come with challenges. “In all of this,” he laughs, “we’re going to find a new normal.” But he’s also confident and optimistic about the 95-year-old theater’s new direction.
“We’re going to have new films that people want to see, and I think it’s going to be great,” Wheeler says. “We’re excited.”