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Business Secrets of the Small Theaters

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Chicago plays host to a number of historic theaters. But they've had to adapt to difficult economic times to stay relevant. (Published Sunday, Aug 14, 2011)

    The secret for staying afloat in the independent movie theater business still comes down to one concept: catering to a niche market. But even that concept is a bit tricky in the age of digital instant gratification.

    “With the creation of Netflix and DVDs over the years, the Musicbox Theatre has stayed competitive by showing things you won’t see other places,” said David Jennings, general manager at the Musicbox Theatre. “We’ve introduced foreign and independent films such as ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ that wouldn’t be in the states if we didn’t introduce them here.”

    The Musicbox Theatre at 3733 N. Southport Ave., built in 1929, opened as a second-run movie theater and has survived, functioning as a independent film house today.

    It's hosted large premieres of films such as “Where the Wild Things Are” and played strange titles, to boot. Ecclectic variety is the name of the game, and, as Jennings explained, that includes providing a unique experience from start to finish.

    “In these economic times, people want the best dollar out of their entertainment budget,” Jennings said. “They don’t just want to go see a movie in a movieplex, they want the entire experience, something different and off the beaten path.”

    Musicbox has maintained steady ticket sales by maintaining their uniqe location and hosting special screening events on the holiday. But he also offers deals to incentivize his client base, and keeps running promotions like cheap popcorn, and $5  movie Mondays to make sure they come back and tell their friends on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Yelp.

    Social networking is a big help to other theaters, and it helped the Patio Theater rise from the ashes after being closed for 10-years. .

    Demetri Kouvalis, general manager and CEO of the Patio at 6008 W. Irving Park Rd., said his theater used Facebook to spike interest during a 10-month renovation that would ultimately reopen the theater. The platform allowed users to track progress and keep up with construction milestones and repoening plans.The theater’s Facebook page has over 4,000 followers, and has expanded their social media strategy into Twitter.

    “Try to get the community involved,” Kouvalis said. “Even though your business may not be unique in the products that you sell or services you provide, try to have something unique about your business so you can maintain a relationship with your potential customers. New customers always come, but they might not come back again.”

    Dennis Wolkowicz, managing director of the Portage Theater at 4050 N. Milwaukee Ave., uses his historic theater as a showcase for others. Even though it mostly operates as a rental space for film showings and concerts, Wolkowicz said he still considers their clients part of a niche market.

    “Each business is unique, but we’ve got a niche for ourselves with certain art forms and genres,” Wolkowicz said. “But you want to keep the clients warm, touch base with people. Whether you’re selling a theater, software, or pots and pans - it’s the same for everyone.”