Island group rallies to aid Vashon Theatre

Eileen Wolcott had been gearing up to take out yet another business loan to keep her small movie house on Vashon Island afloat, frustrated that she had to do so but realizing she had no choice.

Because of sweeping changes in the industry that spell the demise of 35mm film prints as a presentation format, she needs to install an industry-approved digital projection system in the theater — a conversion that could cost close to $100,000. And she has to do it soon.

Wolcott dreaded the idea of yet another investment — especially one “that doesn’t improve anything,” she said. “It’s been brutal just to think about.”

Now, it appears, Wolcott might not have to turn to a bank.

Island GreenTech, a small group of enterprising Islanders on the verge of getting their federal nonprofit tax status, has decided to spearhead a community-wide campaign on Vashon Theatre’s behalf.

If successful, GreenTech will purchase the state-of-the-art digital projection system and screen that Wolcott needs, enabling her to make what some are calling the biggest change in the movie business since talkies replaced silent pictures.

GreenTech will own the projection system, which Wolcott will rent from them at what both parties called a “nominal fee.” At some point, Wolcott said, she might purchase the equipment from GreenTech; the nonprofit would then invest the funds into another Island enterprise.

At GreenTech’s invitation, Wolcott met with the organization a few weeks ago and described her plight; it was then that the group suggested, to Wolcott’s surprise, that it become a fundraising arm and secure the theater’s new projection system on her behalf.

“I was just blown away,” she said.

Tag Gornall, president of GreenTech, said it was an easy decision to make. “We’re all very dedicated to the theater,” he said.

“I just love a community cinema,” he added. “I like getting together and laughing with people and talking about something as you walk up the aisle afterwards. I don’t want to lose that feeling in this community.”

Rex Stratton, the group’s secretary and treasurer, concurred. “It’s really core to the community that we have a theater,” he said.

Small, independent movie houses across the country have been struggling to find a way to make what for many of them is a costly conversion, and some have turned to the community, Wolcott said. But those that have been able to do so are owned by nonprofits — such as the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, where the owner, Rocky Friedman, has been brilliant in figuring out how to keep his small, historic theater alive, Wolcott said.

Wolcott, assuming she would have to take a more traditional path, recently approached the bank that holds the mortgage for her theater to discuss taking out a small business loan. The bank, she realized, had a vested interest in the outcome and seemed willing to extend her the credit; without a new system, she wouldn’t be able to keep the theater going.

But she didn’t relish the thought of another loan; her business, which barely breaks even, had just finished paying off a previous business loan. “We were just about to get our feet under us,” she said.

GreenTech’s plan, she said, provides the nonprofit, community-style ownership that many small cinemas need in order to make it these days. “It moves us into a better place,” she said, “where we’ll probably never have to go to the community again and say, ‘We need your help.’”

The fundraising campaign has to take place quickly, however, for Vashon Theatre to remain viable. Motion picture studios are issuing fewer and fewer 35mm print films, forcing an intense competition among those cinematheques that have yet to go digital. Wolcott would like to show, for instance, “Moonlight’s Kingdom,” a film that she called “totally a Vashon movie.” But the studio only made 400 prints, she said, and it’s proving difficult for her to secure one.

By this fall, if she doesn’t have digital capability, she suspects she’ll be able to show few if any new releases. Referring to an upcoming blockbuster, Wolcott said, “I might not be showing ‘The Hobbit’ in the fall if we don’t have digital.”

Those behind the fundraising campaign say they realize it’s a daunting challenge. “I think it will take a huge amount of effort,” Gornall said.

The group met Tuesday at the theater with Wolcott and her daughter to further discuss the fundraising plan and to begin the work of hammering out some details and a timeline. “There are a lot of ideas going around,” Gornall said.

But Stratton, Gornall and Wolcott are also optimistic. The partnership, Gornall said, is creative; since GreenTech will own the new system, the fundraiser can’t be construed as a gift to a for-profit business. “We’re owning this,” he said. “The money we raise will stay in the community.”

What’s more, Stratton and Gornall said, the theater — like movie houses in small towns and rural communities across the country — holds a special place; it’s a community asset that many Islanders, they said, would hate to lose.

“This is a way of being creative on our little island, a way we can get things done,” Stratton said.

Gornall, who was a projectionist as a teenager in his home town in Ohio some 50 years ago, noted that his town no longer has a theater.

“We don’t want that to happen here,” he said. “We don’t want an empty box.”


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