At Red River, ‘Barbenheimer’ hints at a new world for films

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 08-22-2023 3:47 PM

Yes, it’s true that Red River Theatres has been raking in the ticket sales this month with not one but two blockbusters that it began showing at the same time as the octoplexes of the world. But its executive director wants one thing to be perfectly clear.

“We have no intention of becoming a Regal,” said Angie Lane, referring to the multi-screened cinema on Loudon Road. “We’re going to remain true to our spirit. … We have an ongoing conversation about which films that we feel are not aligned with who we are and we won’t show.”

In other words, don’t expect to see a “Fast and Furious” sequel on South Main Street.

Nonetheless, there’s a sense that Hollywood’s painful transition, started by the rise of streaming services that have cut into sales, accelerated by the pandemic and now worsened by the writers and actors strike, is changing the landscape of film distribution in ways that could help independent theaters like the non-profit Red River.

“We were one of the last regions that has geographic prohibiting,” Lane said, referring to the industry practice of not giving the same movie to theaters that are close together. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” began playing at Regal and Red River at the same time.

That restriction disappeared during COVID. “This gives us more opportunities to decide about films that might not have come our way.”

In its 15 years of existence, Red River has always tiptoed between being a boutique cinema for the film lover and an old-time downtown movie house for the masses. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” are unusual because they serve both roles at once, generating an enthusiasm reflected in the idea of a “Barbenheimer” night, seeing both films in succession. Lane says a few have done that although it requires more than five hours in the theater.

The movies’ timing couldn’t be better because they arrived just after Red River returned to full-time operation after the long, painful pandemic.

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“In July we sold over 8,000 tickets. That’s around 26% of all the tickets we sold last year,” said Lane. “We’re selling out shows. Even on Tuesday or Wednesday night it would be, like, 100 tickets.”

The audience response was so unexpectedly huge that the theater ran out of butter for the popcorn. “We were well-stocked, but not well-stocked for Barbie!” 

The only comparable film for Red River success is probably “Slum Dog Millionaire” but “Barbie” has surpassed that in ticket sales.

“It’s been great for the staff; they’re so excited. And the energy for the community!” said Lane.

The big question is whether the crowds will continue. Lane knows the current success is unlikely to be repeated any time soon but she hopes it shows that people have overcome their COVID fears about gathering in theaters.

“I’ll find out as we move on to the next of the year. I think it is an indicator of a threshold being crossed. They wanted to come out and now, hopefully for the movie industry as a whole. We hope that it proves the experience of seeing something on a big screen that you can’t get at home,” she said. 

The success of the two movies, neither of which is a sequel or part of a long-running franchise, also holds out hope that Hollywood may not have turned its back on mid-budget films, the ones based on storytelling rather than familiar characters,  that are Red River’s meat and potatoes. 

“I do hope that it’s an indicator we have reached a certain point. Filmmakers were able to create these films and release them in a theater, and people came out for them. I hope they’ll do more of it!” Lane said.

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