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The Big Picture

Art of Survival at the Art House

'Crouching Tiger,' 'Billy Elliot' buoy a family-run theater after a tough year.

April 03, 2001|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Jim Dee is squatting in the back of a True Value hardware store, surveying a stack of 79-cents-a-foot rolls of clear vinyl tubing. "I'd like 3 feet of that," he says to the store manager. "In fact, why don't you make it 4."

It's just hours before the big Friday night movie crowd arrives at the Palm Theater here, and the owner of the town's only art-house theater is busy fixing a leak in the hose of his popcorn concession's canola oil machine. The Palm is a true mom-and-pop movie enterprise. Dee's wife, Patty, served as the contractor when the theater was renovated in 1988. His eldest daughter, 16-year-old Nicole, now works part time at the concession stand. And when the popcorn machine's on the fritz, it's Dee who makes a run to the hardware store.

The Palm may be 225 miles away from the glamour capital of Hollywood, where lunchtime chat focuses on opening-weekend grosses, but the art-house theater is on another front line of filmgoing: It's a place where people flock to see good movies. When the theater is swamped, its 49-year-old owner takes tickets himself, steering patrons to one of the Palm's three screens; the biggest theater seats 135 people, the smallest 50.

" 'Crouching Tiger' is in Screening Room 1," Dee tells a giddy young couple who look as if they are out on a first date. "It's the first door on your right, and it's very full in there."

Dee is a little giddy himself these days. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," now in its 13th week, has been the Palm's biggest hit in years, having broken all sorts of house records. When Dee shows me around his home one afternoon, he says he and his wife are hoping to finally add on to their bedroom, calling it "the room 'Crouching Tiger' built."

"Billy Elliot," which played at the Palm from November through early March, was also a huge success. The burst of good fortune didn't come a minute too soon. Last year was horrific for the Palm. In fact, until business began to pick up just before Thanksgiving, the year "was really a write-off," says Dee. "There were times when we only had 10 people in each theater."

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In fact, the last few years have been a bruising ordeal for theater owners, big and small. A string of large chains, including United Artists Theatres, Edwards Cinemas, Carmike Cinemas and Loews Cineplex, have all filed for bankruptcy. Silver Cinemas, the parent company of Landmark Theatres, the leading chain devoted to art-house films, filed for bankruptcy last May. Most of the larger chains hit the skids after a late-'90s building binge created a glut of theaters with costly leases.

The Palm, a modest theater located in the old Chinatown section of San Luis Obispo, has a different problem. Throughout most of the 1990s, business was booming in the independent film world, fueled by groundbreaking pictures such as "Reservoir Dogs," "Clerks," "The Usual Suspects" and "The Full Monty." Fifty years ago, stars were born at Schwab's Pharmacy. In the 1990s, the gold rush was at the Sundance Film Festival, which became a hipster mecca for new filmmakers.

But now the indie boom, like the dot-com bubble, has gone bust. Film purchases at this year's Sundance festival slowed to a trickle. The few films that were snapped up went for discount prices--and for good reason. Indie films that grossed $4 million or $5 million a few years ago are lucky today to make $750,000 at the box office.

Sundance is at one end of the indie food chain; the Palm is at the other. And so I was eager to spend a day with Dee to see what impact this indie-film recession was having on someone whose livelihood depended on a steady source of commercially viable films. It's instantly obvious that Dee is in the film business out of love, not for money. His theater's projection booths are adorned with posters of his favorite foreign films. And he sounds positively ecstatic recounting that Tina, his 13-year-old daughter, not only recently made it through Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," but also, as Dee boasts: "She said she really liked it!"

Dee has been in the art-house business for more than two decades. He ran a nearby 160-seat theater in the 1980s before converting an abandoned employment development office into the Palm. He bought the building in 1991 and created a three-screen theater in 1993. Dee is a minor celebrity; when we walk across town to have lunch, people stop to say hello and ask what movies are coming to the theater.

Dee does his part to promote awareness. He appears every Friday on a local radio station, talking about films with his pal Bob Whiteford, a fanatical movie buff who runs Insomniac Video, a video store where films are organized in such categories as Juvenile Delinquents, Vampires and Alternative Lifestyles, the latter featuring such movies as "Victor/Victoria" and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday." Dee also hosts a Sunday night world-music show on the local National Public Radio affiliate and a Sunday morning Beatles show on a third local station.

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