- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Grandin Theatre in Roanoke closed Nov. 11 after screening "The Last Picture Show" for a packed house.The Grandin likely will close for good if a local foundation does not raise $1.25 million to buy and renovate it. The reason for its demise appears to be competition from multiplex theaters and a lack of moviegoers willing to support independent films.
Don't worry, though, small-venue fans. Art-movie houses have not died yet in Virginia.
Some have endured the assault of giant corporate theaters. Their managers have succeeded for a variety of reasons, but all agree on one thing: While survival is possible, independent movie houses are highly unlikely to be rolling in dough.
Vinegar Hill Theatre, Charlottesville (One screen, 219 seats):
Vinegar Hill opened on Valentine's Day 1976 in a converted motorcycle showroom. It showed older classic films at first, but by the mid-1980s, it was screening mostly new independent and foreign films.
In 1996, the Regal Cinema chain opened a six-screen theater just a few blocks away in downtown Charlottesville. The new theater hurt Vinegar Hill's business, in part because it showed artsy films such as "Trainspotting" alongside conventional Hollywood fare.
Vinegar Hill owner Ann Porotti chose to compete and invested in her theater. She hired a film booker in New York and started planning from week to week, instead of month to month, which provided more flexibility in booking.
Eventually, the Regal theater stopped showing as many art films. Two other theaters in Charlottesville closed, resulting in five fewer screens with which the others had to compete.
"Gradually people started coming back," says Vinegar Hill manager Reid Oechslin.
The Lyric Theatre, Blacksburg, Va. (One screen, 475 seats):
The family-owned Lyric Theatre closed in 1989. That could have been the end, but in 1994, a group of about 30 film lovers formed the nonprofit Lyric Council to save the theater. The council signed a long-term lease with the property's owners in which it agreed to renovate, maintain and run the theater in a rent-free exchange.
The next year, the theater opened on weekends to run classic films such as "West Side Story" while fund raising continued. Today, the theater shows independent and foreign films and offers about 10 live musical performances a year. Faculty and students from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia State University are a mainstay of the theater, both as customers and volunteer staffers.
The nonprofit group has paid off all but $63,000 of its renovation loan, relying on donations and in particular on the Blacksburg Town Council, which has given the Lyric $70,000 for work on the theater.
Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk (One screen, 570 seats):
Naro co-owner Thom Vourlas says he and partner Tench Phillips are able to "make a living" with the theater they have owned since 1977. He adds, however, that it's a good thing they both have wives with other jobs.
Like the Vinegar Hill, the Naro screened a lot of classics at first. With the proliferation of VCRs and the growing popularity of cable television, those films grew less and less popular and the theater moved toward foreign and indie films.
Mr. Vourlas thinks the Naro draws customers in part because its ticket prices are lower than those at chain theaters. He also believes the theater has an advantage over independent theaters in other areas because of Norfolk's size.
In smaller places, he says, an art-house theater might not attract enough moviegoers to survive, while in bigger cities, chain theaters can snap up the hottest art films.
Unlike a lot of independent theater owners, Mr. Vourlas knows his theater is not going to close anytime soon. As part of the agreement with the city, Mr. Vourlas and Mr. Phillips agreed to stay open for at least 10 years.
"If it's true that the moviegoing experience will never die, then 10 years doesn't scare me," Mr. Vourlas says.

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