A Tale of Two Theatres: Is this town big enough for two indie movie houses?
Up until last month, Regal’s Westhampton was Richmond’s only indie film theatre, and that alone gave it significant value. Will Bow Tie Cinema new art house theatre, Criterion Cinema, send the landmark Westhampton reeling?
Located on the Avenues at Libbie and Grove, Westhampton Theatre has been a mainstay for art and foreign film fans, and an iconic staple in the Richmond community. Originally built in 1938 as a single screen theater, complete with a balcony and Williamsburg architecture, the movie house later converted the balcony to a second screen in the 1980’s.
Jewel Gallagher, Regional Marketing Manager for Regal, believes the River City is amply ready to sustain two independent theatres. “We feel the historic Westhampton will continue successfully,” Gallagher remarks. “An increased selection of art films in town may help cultivate an even stronger following of cinema art enthusiasts,” she adds.
Owned and operated by Bow Tie Cinemas, Criterion Cinema is a four screen, all stadium-seating theatre located alongside Bow Tie’s Movieland theatre on Boulevard Square. Though the company’s website boasts the cinema as “Richmond’s new home for independent film,” according to Bow Tie Cinema owner Ben Moss, it’s not about competition with any other theatre in town. “We saw the opportunity to do something similar to what we’d done at Movieland, and showcase all of the historic and interesting attributes of the building,” Moss has said.
Moss points out the development of this new theatre and its chosen repertoire manifested from the suggestions and feedback of local moviegoers. “We’d gotten very consistent feedback from our customers that they’d like to see more of these types of films,” he explains. When the opportunity to expand appeared, they made decisions to establish “a dedicated facility for these types of films.”
While both theatrical exhibitors believe their mutual existence, and even success, are warranted, a few local moviegoers have decided otherwise.
Henry Simmons, a Toronto native who now resides in Richmond, accepts that the Westhampton has served a purpose, but reveals it is a far cry from his experience at the Criterion. “It’s been great to have [Westhampton] there, but I don’t think it will survive,” comments the admitted movie addict. “It’s an old theatre, and it’s not accessible- which is a big thing. [Criterion] is the right size, with small, accessible theatres that have some variety.”
With numerous rumors of redevelopment and new ownership under its belt, the Westhampton seems to continuously waver on the edge of an uncertain future. The Friends of Westhampton, a rallied group of concerned residents and local business owners, formed in 2011 with the collective efforts to save the Westhampton and it’s valuable adjoining parking lot.
According to Friends of Westhampton co-founder and local real estate agent Jennifer Lodge Fergusson, they aim to preserve the theatre and its Regal Cinemas-owned, large lot, which offers indispensable public parking to the Avenues at Libbie and Grove.
“Fortunately, the neighborhood strongly supports the ongoing operation of the theatre,” Fergusson comments. “What most people don’t realize is the loss of this parking area would jeopardize the welfare of surrounding businesses. Beyond improving and increasing the use of the theatre itself, we envision the expansion and redevelopment of the parking area to include two decks, all within an attractive structure that complies with current height restrictions.”
As to the ambiguous future of the actual theatre, Fergusson reveals discussions with potential developers and buyers are already underway. “We have just conferred with Leisha Lariviere of Urban Land Institute and with a developer who previously had an offer in place for the theatre,” she discloses. “The former suggests making it a non-profit venture. The latter informed us we would be well advised to lease back the two screens to Regal as managing company. Upon agreeing to any purchase, Regal [does oblige] the buyer to sign a 95-year, no- compete clause.”
Westhampton theatregoers also seem to teeter back and forth in their regard to the 75 year-old playhouse, adding to the ambiguity surrounding the cinema’s unclear fate.
“[The Westhampton] is wonderful. We go all the time,” comments the Gaizer family, who frequently make the drive in from their home in Manakin Sabot, VA. ”It’s an old, neighborhood theater and they get art films, but not as obscure as [the Criterion], which is fabulous and much more comfortable. Westhampton is great and we don’t ever want to see it go away, but two theatres explore other options that Richmond has never had before.”
Film buff Dustin Glasco, a Richmond local, plans to continue attendance in both cinemas, depending on the films each chooses to screen. ”In my opinion, the Westhampton seems to have tapped into an older demographic. Perhaps the Criterion is aiming for a younger audience. A lot of genre films from overseas that I’m interested in can take years to find a distributor for DVD release. If [the Criterion] is going to be screening, and it makes it possible for me to see these movies earlier, then I’m all for it,” he explains.
With an evident amount of excitement surrounding independent film in Richmond, the question of ’where will all this support and enthusiasm be directed’, still remains. And this inquiry is not one to be answered overnight.
No matter which chair or what theatre you may be sitting in, Simmons believes it’s genuinely important for any city to simply have indie film in the community. “Having been to the Toronto film festival, I’ve seen hundreds of movies shown, where everyone is jammed into every theatre in the city. You realize not having access to independent theatre is like not having access to new literature,” he reveals. “These films are attempts at inspiration, challenging our ideas and giving us a fresh view.”
A recent NYC transplant, I'm a writer, dancer, foodie, clothing lover, and sriracha supporter. Having lived in RVA for seven years, I completely adore the River City, and still spend as many days as I can rock-laying on the James. A self proclaimed "vintage voyeur," I think the arts scene of any city can reveal so much... not only about our past, but also our modern day, and where we need to go from here.
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