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Middlebury moviehouse hopes for a turnaround

MIDDLEBURY — Marquis Theatre owner Bill Shafer is seeking financial support from Middlebury-area movie enthusiasts in an effort to keep the business open.
“Our survival hinges not only on community support from our community, but increasing the use of the venue,” said Shafer, who estimates the 74-year-old theater is currently losing around $20,000 per year. It is a particularly discouraging trend when one considers the efforts Shafer has made to improve the business since he took it over seven years ago. He has made interior upgrades, added a third theater and spent $220,000 to convert to digital projection technology, which has become the standard in the industry.
“There has been no upside, in terms of what the installation of those (three digital projectors) has done for the business on a daily basis,” Shafer said of the impact of his investment on his bottom line.
Shafer acknowledged the Marquis Theatre is not alone in going through tough economic times, brought on by the needed conversion to 3-D and digital technology, as well as competition from regional movie multiplexes with larger screens. Almost 70 percent of the nation’s approximately 40,000 theater screens are served by digital projectors, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
It is a conversion that has come at a stiff price and has seen many small-town theaters ask for support from backers through such platforms as Kickstarter, an online vehicle through which people can invest in creative community projects.
Shafer said he looked into Kickstarter as a fundraising tool, but learned he was not eligible to use it because he had already purchased the digital equipment.
“I was a day late and a dollar short on Kickstarter,” he conceded.
Undaunted, he has established his own website, www.marquisvt.com, through which supporters can contribute toward a $100,000 fundraising goal he said will put the theater on a stronger financial footing.
“Our cash flow is at a critical stage and needing support in order for us to keep our doors open,” reads Shafer’s message on the website. “We have set a fundraising goal of nearly half the projector cost so we may offset our monthly payments and continue on and serve the community.
“Our back is against the wall,” the message continues. “The expenses continue to rise; mortgage, utility and supply bills, employee expenses, cleaning staff and, of course, taxes. With your support in helping to offset the digital upgrade, we will continue to keep our doors open and take advantage of the new technology.”
As of this past Tuesday, supporters had contributed a combined total of $460 toward the $100,000 goal. The anonymous contributors have posted such comments as, “Love the small town theater,” and “Good luck! We need to keep small town theaters and local culture alive.”
Those who contribute sums ranging from $25 to $5,000 are promised “rewards,” such as movie passes all the way up to catered private screenings.
Shafer said he would also entertain a business partnership with anyone who might want to buy into the theater, which he wants to diversify while he makes it more financially stable.
His ideas include:
•  Bringing in more international and independent films. He is considering installing a food prep area from which to serve dishes that are a cultural match for films being shown — such as Indian cuisine for a Bollywood movie.
•  Offering digital broadcasts of live music and sporting events.
“Any digital information can be broadcast in our theater,” Shafer said.
•  Doubling the use of the facility, which is currently in operation roughly 35 hours per week. The three theaters can seat a combined total of 300 people. Around 40,000 tickets are currently sold annually for Marquis Theatre movies.
•  Hosting meetings that require PowerPoint presentations.
•  Renting the facility out for private functions, such as birthday parties where DVDs could be shown on the big screen.
•  Working with Addison County Transit Resources to provide rides for elderly customers who might not feel confortable driving themselves to movies. Shafer said he will inquire with the Lodge at Otter Creek and Eastview at Middlebury retirement communities about bringing seniors in for movies.
“I’m looking to expand beyond the blockbusters,” Shafer said of his business plan. “I want it to be a full-fledged community venue.”
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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