Overcoming the Giant

Overcoming the Giant

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Overcoming the Giant

"And he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead . . .
and he fell on his face to the earth" (1 Samuel 17:49b).

The Biblical account of David and Goliath is the most famous incident of the underdog defeating the giant. Since this event, history has seen giant after giant overcome by a seemingly insignificant underdog. Alexander the Great, before he was given his title, defeated a supposedly unconquerable Persian army, led by King Xerxes. In the 1960s, Joe Namath, quarterback of the New York Jets, predicted and delivered a shocking victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Even in fairy tales, the theme lives on in "Jack and the Beanstalk." And, today, in the heart of San Jose, another David-and-Goliath scenario has arisen between the Camera Theaters and the mainstream Cinemas. But this time, the hurdle is daunting. Can the Camera Theaters overcome this giant, or are the challenges too numerous and too great?

There is, of course, one main obstacle for the Camera Theaters to overcome if they are to survive: they must draw more teens. Why are teenagers so important to the movie industry? When it comes to making money in the movie industry, it is statistically proven that the largest profit contributors are 16-20 year old males. While the art films in downtown San Jose draw educated, sophisticated 35 year-old audiences, they have not drawn the young moviegoers. This, in a nutshell, is the challenge the Camera Theaters must break in order to survive the tightening grip of the merciless cinemas. However, we must recognize the multiple pieces that makeup the nutshell before we can crack it.

To determine what the Camera Theaters need to do in order to overcome the lack of teenagers it draws, the writer took an unofficial poll that has laid out the biggest reasons for the lack of interest among teenagers. The poll taken showed that 60% of Prospect High School students have never been to either of the Camera Theaters, thus confirming the hypothesis that the theaters need to draw teens through their doors. But the poll went further: it also showed that 40% of students had never even heard of the Camera Theaters. Therein lies problem number one in drawing teens: lack of publicity.

For the Camera Theaters to survive they must find a way to gain publicity. In 1993, when it seemed like the Cameras were going to close, twelve art film theater owners wrote letters of support and thirteen newspaper editorials were written on the situation.

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But, no one wants to wait until he's almost dead to be noticed. That's not the goal. The goal is to be recognized while you're alive, so that you can be successful. And a quick research on current advertising materials shows that there isn't much substance to the Cameras' marketing ability. Yes, the Eye does give movie reviews every weekend for films showing at the Cameras. But, beyond that, their power of promotion is virtually nonexistent. Most San Jose State students, for example, have never even heard of the theaters until they are assigned to go to one of the shows playing there. Definitely, marketing and advertising needs a push in order for the Cameras to live on.

Another major concern for the Camera Theaters is the label art films have been given. Most people in the young target audience have stereotyped art and specialty films as cultural, foreign, or literary works. People don't recognize blockbusters such as The Crying Game as foreign films; instead, they expect art theaters to show films based on the Renaissance, Shakespeare, or theater. One of the questions in the poll used for this paper asked the following question:

Q: "Which one(s)of the following films do you believe have been shown at art film Theaters?"

Blair Witch Project
Breakfast of Champions
Shakespeare in Love

Which film do you suppose was chosen most often by the 20 participants? That's right; the only movie not to be shown in an art film theater (Hamlet) was the one chosen most, only because of its association with medieval England. This stereotyping is an ongoing problem for art and specialty film theaters. In fact, two quotes from the students polled show the negative view youngsters have toward the art film industry.

When asked the question "Briefly describe what you imagine you would watch if you went to see an art film?", one response was "A very boring film that will probably put me to sleep." A second, even more critical response read, "Weird crap; most likely cheap with poor acting." The Camera Theaters must find a way to change their image and educate teens. They must do something that will help teens realize that blockbusters such as "The Blair Witch Project" and "Shakespeare in Love" were originally 'art films'.

The third area of concern for any theater trying to win customers is location - an issue strengthening its grip on the Cameras. Located in downtown San Jose, these small art film theaters are out of the way and inconvenient. According to the poll taken, if all movie theaters were showing the same movie, the most determining factor in answering which theater would get the business was location. In their location, the Cameras are losing a lot of business. Getting on Highway 280 or 101 at 7:00 p.m., any movie seekers would be risking traffic jams, accidents, or slow downs. Even on weekends, when traffic is light and it only takes ten minutes to get downtown, the feeling of driving to an unfamiliar location across town is not appealing. Add to that the fact that downtown isn't exactly considered safe and pleasant (even if the image is incorrect), and the Cameras come in dead last for most people's choice of where to go to see a movie.

Tied in with the importance of location is the importance of surrounding business. Again, the Camera Theaters lose ground in the standings. While AMC's and Century complexes have new malls housing Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and Barnes & Noble just across the parking lot, the Cameras sit adjacent to older looking, barred-up corner stores. There is no family atmosphere downtown, and the lack thereof is fatal. The Cameras do have some very nice businesses nearby, but no one is aware of that. When people think of going to 'dinner and a movie', the first thought in their minds is having steak at Mimi's Cafe before going to AMC El Paseo or pasta at the Italian restaurant across the parking lot from AMC Mercado. Very few people, if any, picture a Whopper from Burger King the ideal setting before going to see Shakespeare in Love.

And what about the theaters themselves? The poll taken supported the theory that kids also go to the theatre they think is most impressive. Two-thirds of those questioned agreed that they would decide which theater to go to based on which was newest. This choice makes perfect sense. Where would you rather see a film - at an old, lonely theatre that still has its 70's shag style or at a new sparkling complex that features bright tracking lights and large arcades? The very presence of a huge, state-of-the-art theatre is going to draw crowds, lots of them - a capability the Cameras don't have. Another luxury the Cameras haven't been able to keep up with is the seating. The newest sensation in the large cinemas is the introduction of the love seat to the theater. And what a necessary part of movies these love seats are for teens!

The last on-going challenge in bringing in the teenage moviegoer involves food. Yes, the Cameras offer popcorn, coke, and candy. The Theaters even offer coffee, sandwiches, and espressos. But they still trail in the battle of refreshment superiority. The Cameras' popcorn isn't as fresh, as buttery, or as appealing as the large cinemas. There aren't nearly as many types of candy for the cavity-filled mouths of teens to choose from. And the coffee - what adolescent would sit through "The Blair Witch Project" sipping Colombian coffee rather than guzzling down a 44 oz. coke? While the AMCs and Century Theaters stick a $3.50 price tag on popcorn and $2.25 on coke, the Cameras are barely breaking even charging $2.00 on the same size bag of popcorn and $1.25 on their coke. In short, the Cameras can not compare when it comes to hooking kids with the real money-makers: the food and drinks.

Having looked at the differences between teens' expectations and what the Cameras' offer, it's a wonder that this David is even breathing well enough to look for stones. It almost makes one wonder, why have art films made it in other markets, such as Santa Monica? The question is put to rest by Robert Laemmle, President of Laemmle Theaters in Santa Monica: "This can be attributed to the fact that - demographics aside - our market is simply much larger than yours." Not only is the market larger, but it is also much more educated, sophisticated, and - simply - older. But an older market also has more responsibility, which means less time. While an average teen might go to see a movie every weekend, the more sophisticated 35-year-old target audience of the Cameras may only get out to the Theaters once a month. Add to that the possibility that the adult may want to see a film playing at the AMC, and the conclusion must be drawn that the prime audience member of the Camera Theaters may only come to see an art film every other month. Realizing the implications this has on market share for the Cameras isn't rocket science.

In short, Jim Zuur's Theaters have not yet found a way to draw kids to the show. Movies, such as "The Blair Witch Project," have had some success introducing teens to the world of art film. Yet the image of a dry, boring Shakespearean film is still attached to the image of art films. So, what can be done? Marketing is hardly a realistic option; the Cameras just don't have enough money. But there are things that can be done to bring children downtown. For example, have a Family Night. Give the parents a reason to bring the children to the Cameras. Having grown up with the theaters, the children may continue to come back as they get older. Another possible way to draw a younger crowd is to show movies that are known for their "youth appeal." Even movies that have previously played may be good to have back in the theater if it means more children. Bring back "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" or, especially during Halloween, old Hitchcock thrillers. But it's not just the movies that need to better suit the "youth movement" in order to improve sales. The theater needs a remodeling job, maybe a small arcade room or bright lights - something to energize moviegoers. But this opens a whole new can of worms: should the Cameras gear their sales toward teens if it means losing the intimate, mellow atmosphere? The answer isn't so simple. Maybe best put, if there is an alternative that will enlighten teens about art theaters, then put the eggs in that basket. If not, the atmosphere must be changed in order for there to be an atmosphere at all. Whatever the result, the teens must be educated about the true art film industry and what it's all about.

One poll-taker summed up the ignorance of today's teens well. When asked if he had ever seen an art or specialty film before, the boy replied, "I donít even know what an art film is." This is the harsh reality the Cameras must face. This is the "truth" the Cameras must find a way to falsify. Without spreading the Theaters' appeal to a younger audience, Jim Zuur has no chance of keeping his specialty films on the screen. Gone will be the Camera Theaters. Gone will be art film in San Jose. Gone will be the legacy of small, welcoming movie screens. The only thing left will be the distant memories of the David that fell a few stones short of overcoming the giant.
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