The Fate of a 75 year old Cinema in the Digimedia Age

March 19th, 2007 by Barry Caplan | Tags: , , ,

Had an unexpected find during a visit yesteray to Sonoma California. The lovingly beautiful Sebastiani Theatre, located right on the very historic town square in what is now best know as California Wine Country.

Built in 1933, the palace had fallen into disrepair, but has been restored over the last 15 years by owner Roger Rhoten, with whom I had the chance to chat and discuss the issues operating such a theater in the beginning of the digital media age.

Roger’s theater is a similar age to my hometown’s Senator Theater, but built in a completely different style on a different scale in a different world – rural downtown vs urban, art deco vs a style I confess I forgot the name he told me, that I have not seen before. Still, he listed the same problems the Senator is undergoing, and despite creativity in programming and a clear love for his theater, he is not at all certain about his long term future.

Roger competes agains a 4plex somewhere nearby, and probably larger multiplexes in Napa City about 15-25 miles away. He has trouble procuring the first run movies he is certain would fill his 323 seat theater for weeks at a time. Unlike the Senator he didn’t directly attribute this to “clearance” issues, but did relate that he felt that inability to compete with the multiplex on volume deals with distributors was holding him back.

Sebastiani is one of the screening venues for the upcoming Sonoma Film Fest. Very interesting to compare and contrast the web sites and economics of the Theater and the Film Festival.

The Festival, now in its 10 year, is a 5 day affair celebrating the superb regional wine and food scene with independent film and star-studded galas.

The theater, now in its 75th year, is run as a year round “mom and pop” business, subject to the vagaries of city governement support and private real estate issues and whims (the business does not own the building – it is in other private hands).

The theater has 323 seats, so lets use that as a maximum for the number of tickets the film festival can sell. This year they are pushing for everyone to buy a festival pass, starting at $225. That works out to ~ $70K if they sell all the tickets. Of course there are more expensive tickets that include other events, including a gala dinner honoring John Lasseter. So let’s double that budget to $140K. The list of sponsors and service providers probably doubles the budget again. So lets say $300K per year is roughly the budget for the film festival.

I am sure the theater would love to see and additional $300K pass through its hands, if not in a long weekend, then in a year even. Could it run a year long film festival, with showings once a week or maybe twice a month? More often?

That might depend on if the sponsors of the film fest want to leverage the success through the year, and if the attendees are local citizens compared to tourists. Can an ongoing film festival be an important part of marketing Sonoma as a destination for travel which benefits all the locals?

I say maybe it could.

A partnership seems well worth exploring between the theater, the local film society, and the regional wine and food marketing powerhouses, with the triple goals of preserving the theater’s viability, the region’s attractiveness to tourists, and a decent living for the theater operator.

In the meantime, on your next trip to Sonoma, be sure to take in a film at the Sebastiani!

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