The Living Room Theater 2

Chad McDonald is not impressed with most new movies at his local cineplex. To him, they often feel slapped together by a computer program.

“They really are just like pinball machines trying to generate money,” said McDonald, 50, a film buff based in Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Despite living an hour south of Salt Lake City, where there’s a greater selection of art-house and independent theaters, McDonald has been enjoying classic films such as “Dr. Zhivago” and “The Graduate” on the big screen at nearby corporate theater chains.

“Anytime people can see a vintage film the way it was meant to be seen in the theater, whether it’s 10 years old or 75, it’s good news,” said film critic and author Leonard Maltin. “And of course, theaters wouldn’t be doing it if people weren’t showing up.”

From classics such as “Casablanca” to modern cult favorites like “The Princess Bride” and “Donnie Darko,” corporate chains have increasingly turned to revival programming to fill seats and stay competitive with art-house, indie and specialty theaters amid a historic financial slump and a distracted consumer base.

In the second quarter of 2017, the average movie-ticket price hit a record high of $8.95, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Along with that, the summer 2017 movie season clocked in as the worst in a decade with $3.8 billion in domestic ticket sales — a 14.6 percent drop over 2016, according to ComScore data.

Consumers like McDonald want a sure thing for their money, and exhibitors are eager to convince those consumers — who have invested heavily in streaming video, social media and gaming in recent years — that no mobile device or home theater can match seeing something on the big screen, even without 3-D or IMAX gimmicks.

Enter Fathom Events. From its offices in the Denver Tech Center, Fathom distributes what they call “event content” that seeks to keep first-run houses full during weekdays and off periods, when attendance (and revenue) is lowest. National exhibitors AMC, Regal and Cinemark have thrown their considerable weight behind the Greenwood Village-based company since spinning it off from their National CineMedia advertising arm in 2013.

The fare has included classic movies, but also live sporting events, opera, theater and pop-music concerts, to tune of roughly 140 titles annually. In the first eight months of 2016, the company sold 4 million tickets for $12 to $30 each.

But since last year, when Fathom partnered with Turner Classic Movies’ “Big Screen Classics” series, revenue from their vintage-film series has increased 450 percent, according to Fathom CEO Ray Nutt.

In honor of Halloween, the Sie FilmCenter is showing an exclusive 4K restoration of “Night of the Living Dead” through Oct. 29.

What makes it work?

“Technology has really changed everything,” said Nutt, who declined to share revenue for the classics series, which runs Wednesdays and Sundays. “Ever since we transitioned from 35 millimeter to digital, it’s made our business a whole lot more adaptable and quite frankly easier. Distributing via satellite and hard drives allows us to be more cost efficient.”

Fathom’s theater partners include its corporate owners (AMC, Regal and Cinemark) but also 57 other affiliate exhibitors, such as National Amusements and Marcus Theaters. After licensing a title from the studio — for example, a film celebrating a notable anniversary such as “The Godfather” or “E.T.” — Fathom has a network to distribute the content to 1,000 or more theaters, depending on participation.

“The need to fill empty screens, at times when not everything fares well on a schedule, has grown,” said Keith Garcia, programming manager for the Denver Film Society. “It makes economic sense, but you have to make sure you’re providing a large enough runway for the big titles that drive business, so that you can have the luxury to afford to do repertory on a very consistent basis.”

The revival and anniversary programs, which also include series like Harkins Theatres’ “Tuesday Night Classics,” are a boon for film buffs such as McDonald, who may not live anywhere near an art-house or independent theater.

“For most of the classic films, I have a couple different options of (big theaters) to see them in,” he said. “And by and large, it’s a better bet than most new movies.”

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But simply bringing a film back from the dead, such as “Saturday Night Fever” — which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year — or a seemingly oddball title like Robin Williams’ “Popeye” (as the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has) is no guarantee of box-office success.

Sony’s recent “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” 4K restoration did gangbusters business, thanks to its 40th anniversary marketing campaign and distribution at mainstream theaters, grossing $95,000 at 809 North American sites on a single weekday night — and $1.9 million over its four-day Labor Day weekend run, according to Variety.

That would be disappointing business for most new, big-budget films. But for “Close Encounters,” which long ago recouped its original production and promotional costs, it was a bright spot for the first-run houses that carried it. By contrast, a 3-D version of “Terminator 2” did middling business on a small number of screens, Garcia noted.

Scale makes a difference.

“It’s the chains with the ability to do marketing for it,” said Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at the University of Colorado Denver and runs the Denver Silent Film Festival. “It got too expensive for small theaters to do repertory, until all of a sudden there was that instantaneous digital conversion a few years ago. The rental hasn’t gone down but the shipping has, so the economics are in favor again.”

This setup also helps truly independent theaters, such as the Denver Film Society’s three-screen Sie FilmCenter, get back to their roots.

“We’re exclusive on the 4K restoration of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (which screens at the Sie through Oct. 29) because a film like that, at its age, needs a specific type of cinephile to come to it,” Garcia said. “And our audiences are willing to look at it in new contexts that it needs to be successful.”

What makes a classic?

Figuring out what will or won’t be profitable is an age-old concern in film, but it extends equally to the revival market. So what, exactly, makes for a classic?

As Noah Cross (John Huston) tells Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in 1974’s “Chinatown,” ” ‘Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

The same can be said of many B-movies — judging by the mix of irony and nostalgia with which bombs such as “Troll 2” and “The Room” have been embraced in recent years. But there’s no precise formula for a midnight movie.

“We experience cultural shifts that provide a different lens, but history also repeats itself,” Steve Bessette, creative manager for the Denver Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, said of programming older films. “Movies like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ always come back to being relevant because every decade there’s a new reason we lose trust in authority or the government. Films like ‘Southland Tales’ completely bomb when they’re released but are later seen as prophetic because they saw how our culture was shifting.”

Some, such as “Pink Flamingos,” “Eraserhead” and “The Big Lebowski,” develop a self-sustaining culture. The enthusiastic shadow-plays (or live, simultaneous stage versions) of 1975’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” are nearly as old as the film itself.

But true staying power is never a product of corporate-level marketing, cinephiles and critics say. They must bubble up organically — a demand that exhibitors can then meet with programming. Anything to keep “tushes in seats,” as Maltin put it, and away from other, non-theatrical methods of seeing a film.

“We have to keep our lights on and make sure our staff is well-fed, but we also want our audience to eat their broccoli,” the Drafthouse’s Bessette said. “For our team, it’s a mixture of those elements plus timing.”

Even the anniversary of a critical flop like “Spice World” — a shameless vehicle for U.K. pop group the Spice Girls — was a chance to gauge audience interest in forgotten fare.

“Reaction to our 20th anniversary screening of ‘Spice World’ was bigger by 300 percent than the experience I had watching the film in a theater in 1997,” Garcia said. “Every dog has their day and every film has its moment.”

REVIVALS ON TAP

A sampling of restored, classic and cult movies on metro-area screens in the coming weeks. Show times and ticket prices vary.

“Night of the Living Dead 4K”

Through Oct. 29 (denverfilm.org)

“Psycho”

Oct. 28-29 (denverfilm.org)

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with shadow cast

Oct. 30-31; Nov. 25 (landmarktheatres.com; bouldertheater.com)

“Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut”

Oct. 29 and 31 (fathomevents.com)

“Evil Dead II”

Oct. 31 (drafthouse.com/denver)

“Princess Mononoke”

Nov. 3-4 (landmarktheatres.com)

“National Lampoon’s European Vacation”

Nov. 7 (harkinstheatres.com)

“12 Monkeys”

Nov. 8 (landmarktheatres.com)

“Casablanca”

Nov. 12 and 15 (fathomevents.com)

“Eyes Wide Shut”

Nov. 15 (landmarktheatres.com)

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles”

Nov. 21 (harkinstheatres.com)

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”

Dec. 10 and 13 (fathomevents.com)

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