Want More Movie Screens in Center City? Now’s Your Chance

A look at the hopes to reopen two Philadelphia theaters.

Center City needs more movie screens, and a wider variety of movies. That’s a sentiment that just about every film buff in town can certainly get behind. And it’s the idea behind the Philadelphia Film Society’s move last year to take over the lease of the shuttered Roxy Theater on Sansom Street.

This week the Film Society announced the launch of a campaign, on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, to raise $40,000 for a grand reopening of the theater. “Restore the Roxy” launched March 1st and will run through March 29th, and as of pub time Wednesday, it had already raised more than $15,500.

PFS president Andrew Greenblatt told me in an interview that the Kickstarter money will be used to “to get the theaters as ready as possible to go,” with new sound, new screens and new seats. Further funds will be used to fix the lobby, lounge and bathrooms, and possibly install a new marquee.

The PFS went the Kickstarter route, Greenblatt said, because “It’s a nice way for a lot of people to become contributors in something, to vest them, and give them some ownership.” There are 16 separate reward levels for those who contribute,  ranging from $5 or more (acknowledgment on the film society’s website) to $25 or more (a t-shirt) to $100 or more (a “date night” package of movie tickets, drinks and popcorn) to $150 or more (a Film Festival all-access badge) to $5,000 or more (a private screening for 50 people, plus free t-shirts for everyone.)

“We worked really hard to come up with benefits that we think are fun and favorable, and give a lot of our early supporters and adopters perks,” Greenblatt added.

What made the Film Society decide to run a theater of its own? The city is “critically underserved in terms of screens,” Greenblatt said. There are just 14 screens in Center City itself, which, he said, is fewer than on some city blocks in New York and Chicago. If you count “greater Center City,” the number is 44 but, Greenblatt noted, most of those are playing the same 10 films most of the time. And on top of that, none of the current theaters are centrally located in the city.

The Roxy will be used each year as a main venue of the PFS-hosted Philadelphia Film Festival. But the idea, Greenblatt says, is to provide a year-round showcase for more obscure, esoteric and often foreign films, the kind of movies that generally play at the festival but never see a local release otherwise. Philadelphia Weekly‘s Matt Prigge puts together an annual list of the best films that went completely unreleased in Philadelphia; the Roxy will play those kinds of movies.

Greenblatt listed Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Room 237, the documentary about mysteries associated with The Shining, as recent films that may have played at a PFS-run Roxy had it been up and running last year.

In addition, while Greenblatt didn’t promise that the new Roxy will host Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, as it did for years, he acknowledged it was a possibility. I did not ask about The Room.

The return of the Roxy isn’t the only effort to revive a formerly celebrated movie house in Center City.

The Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street, Philadelphia’s primary movie palace for much of the 20th century, has been closed completely since 2002 and is coming up on the 20th anniversary of its final gala movie premiere, that of Philadelphia in 1993. A rescue attempt a few years ago by Clear Channel/Live Nation petered out, as did plans by developer Hal Wheeler, after Wheeler’s passing in early 2010.

Howard B. Haas is head of Friends of the Boyd, a nonprofit dedicated to the Boyd’s full restoration. When I asked via email if the Boyd group would consider using a Kickstarter or other crowdfunding mechanism, Haas said the group’s goal remains to “fund an overall solution to the Boyd.”

“The Film Society has a lease on the Roxy so are better able to fundraise,” Haas said. Once that occurs, “then [we] can better use such methods.” In the meantime, Friends of the Boyd are accepting PayPal donations.

I’ve been a movie critic and general filmgoer in Philadelphia for eight years, and I think I speak for most like me in stating that the more movie screens in town, and more different kinds of  films getting a release, the better. You can contribute to the Restore the Roxy Kickstarter here.