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July 24, 2009

After 29 Years, Savoy for Sale

Rick Winston and Andrea Serota, owners of Montpelier's single-screen Savoy Theater, have announced that they're looking for someone to buy the business.

Winston has been showing indie and arthouse films at the brick-walled theater since 1980. Serota, his wife, became his sole business partner in '99.

So why stop now? Serota says in a phone interview, "Rick and I are both celebrating our 62nd birthdays this week. We realized some time ago that we wanted to prepare for the theater's existence beyond our participation." Knowing that the "transition might take quite a long time," they listed the business — including a lease hold on the downtown space, theater furniture and equipment, and the stock of their attached video store — with Vermont Business Brokers. The asking price: $112,000.

Serota says she doesn't want the Savoy to go the way of arts organizations that don't survive the departure of their driven founders: "We are devoted to the theater and want to see it continue and thrive beyond us."

"We may continue as part-time managers," adds Winston. "We're certainly not going anywhere."

A lot has changed since the Savoy's advent in the 1980s. Winston describes that decade as "the rebirth of American independent film," citing the rise of directors such as John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee. The Savoy was a quaint, small-town theater where you could get homemade popcorn, then sit down to the pulsing urban rhythms of Public Enemy at the opening of Do the Right Thing.

In 1980, Winston points out, Montpelier's other downtown theater — the Capitol Showplace — had one screen. "Within five years, they had five screens." Meanwhile, video technology — then the Internet — multiplied the entertainment options, especially for young people. In the last four or five years, Winston says, he's witnessed both an "explosion of new technology" and the "conglomeration" of the film distribution industry. "Everything costs more."

Serota elaborates that "the mainstreaming of the so-called indie film has changed how the big studios work with those films. It's put out of business a lot of the small, specialty distributors." As a result, "it becomes more and more challenging to showcase films like that."

Big distributors can be difficult for independent theaters to work with, but audiences are another factor. In March 2007, Winston surveyed Savoy members to find out why they hadn't come to highly touted films such as Pan's Labyrinth. On another occasion, he used his email listserv to explain why the theater had held over the hit Juno even though that precluded screening another film.

More recently, the recession has taken its toll. During the Savoy's last membership campaign, says Winston, "the same number renewed, but at a lower level." Serota notes that high gas prices tend to keep movie lovers from outlying towns at home: "Our audience comes from a pretty wide range."

Still, the Savoy's "roughly 1000" members include a lot of diehards: "Many have been renewing annually since 1985," says Serota. "It's like tithing to the church — artistic tithing."

Right now, says Serota, the couple is busy "informing people in the Montpelier arts community to see who might be interested in moving the Savoy to its next incarnation." Are they feeling optimistic about the theater's future? "No one can be confident about the future of arts organizations," says Serota, who describes their outlook as "hopeful ... not confident, but not pessimistic either."

Two things are for sure: First, the Green Mountain Film Festival will happen in 2010, say Winston and Serota. Second, Savoy "memberships will be honored by any change in ownership," Winston assures. "The theater would not exist without its loyal members."

So, anyone want to own a movie house?

Here's my personal take on what would inspire me to make the drive from Burlington: Small, youth-oriented films that generally only play in big urban markets, such as Baghead and Humpday. Or classics (and camp classics) projected the old-fashioned way. But it makes more sense for the Savoy to serve a central VT audience, whatever that audience is seeking...

Big props to Rick Winston and Andrea Serota for keeping the Savoy not just going but a vital part of Vermont for lo these many years.
The state would have been a poorer place without them.

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