It’s a little sleepy up here on the far northwest side of Chicago, the neighborhood where I grew up and still happily reside. The rumble of the El is miles beyond earshot, the street parking is plentiful, and the rows of cozy brick bungalows stretch off into infinity. There’s none of the guilt of white-flight suburban life out here, but we do enjoy some of the comforts. If you’re visiting the neighborhood, it’s probably to do some shopping at the Harlem Irving Plaza mall and its attendant retail sprawl on Harlem Avenue. Folks don’t generally head to Dunning or Portage Park for a good time.
Though the Patio Theater showed movies continuously until 2001, I never saw a movie there in my youth, at least not that I can remember (though I do have a vivid memory of seeing “Ghostbusters” in a cavernous old theater which I think might have been the Will Rogers.) But as a young adult, finding my way in the big city, I would occasionally notice the Patio’s battered red and yellow marquee at the corner of Irving Park and Austin as I sat at the traffic light, heading east to a friend’s house, or often, to a movie theater. I wonder what’s in there…
So when news came that the Patio was coming back, I was over the moon. And that was before I even saw the place, which is, beyond any doubt, the most beautiful place to see a movie in Chicago. She’s a stunning, 10-ton bombshell of a room. I still shake my head sometimes as I take my seat, wondering in amazement to myself at how this place could possibly still exist.
The management of the Patio, led by owner Demetri Kouvalis, took to the endeavor with enthusiasm and energy, and they’ve had a few lucky breaks along the way; when the scourge of DCP reared its ugly head, patrons raised $50,000 to help fund the transition to digital projection, and the city recently announced the allocation of TIF money to help revamp the theater’s beleaguered air conditioning system (the very issue that felled the theater in 2001.)
But the bloom has evidently come off the rose for some patrons, and recently Kouvalis has been less than guarded about divulging the problem of waning attendance. In a recent piece by DNAInfo Chicago’s Heather Cherone, Kouvalis sounded downright defeated about the theater’s future:
“I don’t know, maybe it was just a nostalgia thing,” Kouvalis said. “One or two bad months has really put us in a hole.”
As a patron, I can’t help but read these comments with a mix of nervousness and aggravation. My desire for the Patio to succeed is so great that to see comments from the management essentially amounting to “hey, you guys better show up or we’re not going to be here much longer” seems incredibly defeatist for a theater just barely two years into operation. I desperately want the Patio to be there in the years to come. So does the neighborhood, which has seen a notable uptick in viable business on the theater’s stretch of Irving Park Road. Below are five guidelines which have kept other Chicago theaters afloat, and which the Patio may well be advised to consider before it folds up yet again, much to the extreme disappointment of neighborhood residents (and Kickstarter backers.)
Look at what other theaters are doing
Operating a movie theater in 2013 and turning a profit is just short of miraculous. The Patio does not have a bustling neighborhood nightlife or an abundance of foot traffic to aid it. It’s an out-of-the-way trip for many would-be film-goers who live deeper in the city, but many of the same practices that other theaters have long relied on would serve you well. Some examples are below.
Get creative with revenue generators
Your neighbor the Portage sells beer and wine, which any restaurateur will tell you are huge moneymakers. Events at the Portage also often feature vendors selling everything from key chains to t-shirts to DVDs. Beef up your concessions, and don’t be afraid to charge what you need to charge to make money. Maybe tap neighbor Regulus Coffee to offer gourmet coffees in the theater? I’d definitely order a hot cup of joe on each visit.
Count on special events to fill your coffers
You’ve got a ton of seats to fill up. Your affiliation with the Chicago Cinema Society has seemed to be a success. It’s a perfect way to draw in moviegoers who might not otherwise schlep out to our neck of the woods for second-run fare. Continue to curate and program special events that patrons can plan on, and sell advance tickets (this is important: an impulse ticket buy on your computer is a far better way to boost attendance than relying on patrons to buy tickets at the box office day-of.) This may mean putting second-run fare on hold at times, but if it’s not working anyway, what have you got to lose? In short, find a way to turn a $5 ticket purchase into a $25 ticket purchase as often as possible. All it takes is a little planning and some creativity. (And definitely continue to use your 35mm equipment as a selling point when running film prints; that is a big time value-added perk for many film buffs.)
Especially on the weekend. People like routines. Pick a matinee time and run something early (a classic film, perhaps) on weekends. Every weekend. Use your digital projector to get creative with programming. You’re doing so already, but continue to up the ante. Eventually, there should be a movie running on your screen at all hours of every day that a person might conceivably want to see a movie, day and night. Whenever possible, resist the urge to book a film which your patrons have likely seen on cable a dozen times or more, unless it demands to be seen on the big screen. Think outside of the box and program revivals that will draw attendance (I realize that the catalog of available DCP titles probably has not yet caught up to this idea, but remember that, with some few exceptions, patrons will not likely show up for a movie they know by heart.)
Work the neighborhood
Find groups to rent your theater, and find a way to further endear yourself to the neighborhood. Reach out to retirement homes, churches, schools, community groups, and the chamber of commerce. Donate free passes to charities. Do some good old fashioned marketing. Tell people that you’re there and you that want their business. Offer special event pricing for one-off showings for groups. In short, Mr. Kouvalis, SELL. Don’t wait around for the business to come to you. You have to go out and find it. Your theater is a staggering gem, and the neighborhood can ill afford to lose its glimmering marquee yet again.