Recently I launched the “Win the Temple Theatre Essay Contest” and sometime in the days following January 15, 2016, a secret trio of judges will pick a winner to own my historic 98-year old movie theater. How did I decide to do an essay contest where writers do their best, tuck their well written 250 words essay on “why I would be the best person to be the new owner of the Temple Theatre in historic downtown Houlton, Maine?” into an envelope, include the $100.00 entry fee, and hope they’ll be judged to win a classic Maine downtown movie theater?
More than a dozen years ago I fell in love with a sadly neglected classic movie theater in Houlton, Maine’s downtown Market Square. I’d seen a newspaper story and photo of the closed theatre marquee where the fallen exhibitor had put on the sign his last words to his patrons “thanks for your lack of support!” and just like that I was driving 150 miles north from my home town to take a look. What I found would have sent most people running. Rundown, broken and dirty didn’t begin to describe it. But I instantly loved the theatre underneath it all, the majestic town square, the historic buildings, and I’m a sucker for a rescue job. In a few months I was all in.
We started by cleaning, cleaning and more cleaning; it was so dirty it was almost funny. We broke down a huge brick wall to expand the lobby, and the bones of what had been a beautiful and beloved 1918 theatre started to reassert itself. Painting and restoring, resizing the balconies, custom lighting, brass railings, glamorous carpeting, all new concession equipment, a renewed marquee, tuning up the old 35mm equipment, rebuilding restrooms that were cool and clean too and then suddenly it was re-opening night in November 4, 2002.
Fast forward 14 years and we are running the “Win the Temple Theatre Essay Contest.” What happened? Fourteen years ago I was 50. That happened; I am on the edge of 65. But the real thing was I never intended to spend 14 years managing a small town movie theater from a distance. I had always intended to find a local person to own and run the theatre but they never presented themselves. When my talented and irreplaceable manager told me he was taking another position in six months I knew my time to move on had also arrived.
Over the last years we’ve had a wonderful time. My manager’s kids grew up in the large second floor apartment over the theatre. As a first run theater, we opened great films like the “Hunger Games,” “Harry Potter,” “Avatar,” “The Lord of the Rings” and so many more big and small films. Thousands of kids have grown up going to the weekend “free holiday matinee film series” for the month between Christmas and Thanksgiving. Lesser known films (even when they took home the Oscars) also graced our screens: “Lost in Translation,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “The Fighter.” And we hosted some great flops too. Names that will live forever: “John Carter,” “The Lone Ranger,” “RIPD,” even The Interview. And every Adam Sandler movie. Ah; those were the days.
No matter what played on our screens over the last week the beauty of the movie exhibition industry is that every Friday night you get to start over again. Filmmakers and distributors are working away furiously so that theatre owners everywhere don’t have to lay awake at night wondering if anyone is still making great movies. The arts, crafts, science and business of filmmaking are alive and well. If anything, there are too many good films these days.
The theater is in a tall three story building, a 1918 classic brick downtown structure from the bustling early 20th century, comfortably at home with the other imposing buildings of Market Square. Built by the Masonic Lodge who still owns and occupies its 3rd floor, the theatre is on the ground floor and there’s a sprawling second floor of office suites and the large owner-manager’s apartment.
While the Temple Theatre building, property and business had been listed with realtors for sale at $350,000, my manager’s time with us was on a quickly ticking clock and buyers were not coming forward. We had to make a move.
Just at the same time, bursting onto the local and national news was a story about a Maine country inn that had just successfully completed a “win the inn” essay contest. After looking at the idea carefully, we dove in. We’re not actually “giving it away” because there is a minimum of entries required but for that one person who wins the property, business, and theatre because they sent in a well written essay and an entry fee of $100.00 it will feel pretty much like someone gave it away.
Back in 2012 I wrote a piece for Indiewire “We’re about to lose 1000 small theaters” that was all about the challenge of the digital cinema conversion. I confess; there was a degree of “the sky is falling!” Most theaters made the conversion even if some of the truly awful or just too small town theaters without sufficient interest did close. In 2014 I wrote another piece for Indiewire on the digital conversion’s mostly happy ending. And later that year my very own Temple Theatre joined the digital world with a full digital conversion. The theater is now well poised for a positive future.
Who will end up owning the theater? We hope it is someone who loves the movies as we do. Being on the sharp end of the movie industry as an exhibitor is exciting, interesting and an honor. Attending theater owners conventions I’ve heard dozens of movie stars and directors tell how watching movies as children in their favorite theater sealed their fate and set their course to tell stories on screens. If you love people and the movies there’s nothing like owning a movie theater. There’s a reason it’s a business where it’s not uncommon to find four generations working together.
I hope the new owner is someone who loves small town life. Houlton, Maine is not Hollywood or New York City: it’s the 51st largest town in Maine. It’s a place that is one with the great outdoors, Shire Town to the agricultural heartland of Aroostook County, and holds down the northern end of I-95 before it disappears into Canada. It’s place where you’ll meet your theatergoers and neighbors at school, community and social events. Kids ride their bikes to school and you’ll be safe from traffic jams.
Lastly we hope that just because they won the theater, building, business and property, the winner will still come equipped with good business skills because without those skills a life in business will be “interesting,” to say the least.
The theater has been around 98 years. After January 15, 2016 the judges will select the new owner and come 2018 they will celebrate The Temple Theatre’s centennial. 100 years of hosting film from Charlie Chaplin to the latest “Star Wars” with generations of theatergoers carried away by flickering images. We’re good with that. When you own and operate a historic theatre knowing that you’re actually more of a caretaker than an owner comes with the territory.
Somewhere out there there’s someone with a dream, maybe they’ve watched “Cinema Paradiso” one too many times, they’re looking for a change, or they’ve always wanted to host their own film festival or a retrospective and they love the movies and have always wanted to be the owner of their own movie theater. For one talented essay writer that dream will be coming true soon. Roll credits.
Find out more about the essay contest here.