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May 25, 2012

Will Montpelier's Savoy Theater Close?

Terrence-youk-1Is Montpelier's Savoy Theater "Too Culturally 'Big' to Fail"?

That's the headline on a special insert that Terrence Youk (pictured right), who has owned the Savoy since late 2009, is sending to his membership list today along with the usual newsletter and appeal.

Youk continues:

Since printing the membership appeal included in this envelope, our financial position has eroded to the point where we may need to close the theater starting June 15th. This is due to very poor revenues in April and May, drastically reduced membership levels, and increasing costs (film distributors now get about 50% of our ticket sales). The shortfall is about $12,000. If we close, we will remain closed until we raise enough funds to allow the Savoy to continue, either as a theater or some other form.

A bit of history: The single-screen Savoy has been showing films in downtown Montpelier since 1905. In 1980, Rick Winston and Andrea Serota transformed the brick-walled space into an arthouse with a loyal clientele. But after 29 years, they decided it was time to move on.

Youk ran a successful fundraising campaign to renovate the theater and transform its basement from a video store into a second screening room. Downstairs Video moved to a new space down the street (it's now Montpelier's only downtown video store).

Savoy-0512-1The Savoy's basement became a hip lounge (pictured) with a bar, tables made of film reels and comfy chairs for watching movies that Youk obtains digitally via a server. (Upstairs, the Savoy still projects 35-millimeter.)

For the past few years, the Savoy's Downstairs has offered opportunities to see movies that never screened in Burlington (until they hit DVD). Right now, Youk is screening Marley, a biography of the music legend, while The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays upstairs.

If you want to keep up with filmmakers such as the Dardenne brothers, Nanni Moretti or Miranda July, Downstairs could be your best bet. It's also hosted live music, name-that-movie quizzes, special events (like live beaming of the Bioneers conference) and social gatherings related to the annual Green Mountain Film Festival (which screens films upstairs).

Last May, river flooding filled the Savoy's basement with sludge and floating chairs. Youk raised $12,000 to clean it up. Then along came Irene. That time, the damage was less severe.

But will waning interest and digital culture do what Mother Nature couldn't?

(Note: The second factor isn't just menacing the Savoy. Certain studios are currently sending a message to theater owners: Convert to digital projection or die. It's the focus of a panel discussion at the upcoming Lake Placid Film Forum called "Do Movie Theaters Have a Future?")

In his appeal, Youk says that just seven more ticket sales per day, or 460 committed memberships per year, would keep the theater on solid ground. He also mentions that he's forming a nonprofit, the Savoy Media Lab, and will seek community grants "to establish an endowment to keep the theater financially healthy and culturally vital."

With Phoenix Books opening in Burlington, there's been a lot of talk of how the community-supported model could apply to local businesses that aren't farms. Do central Vermonters care enough about their arthouse theater to buy memberships, send donations and keep it in business? We'll see.

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