Some happy birthday.
In May, the New Crystal Theatre celebrated 30 years of showing movies in Missoula. Less than a month later, theater operators Tam Armstrong and Joel Baird announced that the venerable art house would be closing its doors after the last picture show on July 3.
Competition from other theatres. Video, DVD and the Internet. Changing tastes. Diminishing returns. Burnout. The events of Sept. 11. All of these things factored into the Crystal closure.
More than anything, though, the Crystal has had to contend in recent years with a rapidly changing market. Smaller, independent films and foreign imports, once almost exclusively the domain of the Crystal and hundreds of smaller art houses like it across the country, have now become big business. Instead of floating all the boats, the rising tide of commercialization in independent and foreign films often pits the smaller theatres against each other for the same titles, particularly in small markets like Missoula. “I’d like to put this not just in the context of the Crystal [and the local competition], but in the context of the business overall,” says Armstrong. “Because what’s happened in the past five years is that the business has changed so much. Before The English Patient and Good Will Hunting, independent international films were basically art house films. Five years ago, the Carmike would never have been interested in showing a film like Brotherhood of the Wolf, but they did, I think, trading on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
“An even better example is Iris,” Armstrong adds. “In years past, there never would have been any question that that little film would show anyplace but the Crystal. No question. But because international and foreign films started making a lot of money—look at Crouching Tiger, look at Amelie—all of a sudden art house is big business. And in Missoula, it’s a small market. You take this little market that the Crystal’s been pumping along like the Little Engine that Could for 30 years, and all of a sudden the titles that would have been ours are playing somewhere else.”
It was the Wilma, for example, and not the Carmike, that won out on Amelie, the plucky French film that Armstrong calls the “big ticket” in foreign film this year. The film, Armstrong asserts, had all but been guaranteed to the Crystal last year by a distribution representative whose superiors overrode her earlier informal promise to the Crystal. In the interval, as the theater’s future began to look even grimmer, the two Missoula theaters began tentative negotiations that would have allowed the Crystal to move at least part of its operations into the Jewel Box, the Wilma’s now-disused smaller street-level projection room. Negotiations eventually fell apart, Armstrong claims, as the Wilma’s initial offer became less and less favorable as talks proceeded.
Armstrong chooses to downplay any enmity between the two theaters. She prefers to reiterate systemic changes in the film industry and the rising costs of doing business as equally significant factors in the Crystal’s demise. Most of the Crystal’s programming in the last five years has been the result of the thousands of hours of volunteer work Armstrong spent searching out and securing titles she wanted to bring to the theater—hundreds of phone calls, in some cases, just to nab one film that she thought would be “good fit” for the Crystal and its audience.
“In the past, I’ve learned to discern the pictures that are going to be able to play at the Crystal,” Armstrong says. “If it was foreign film and I had a relationship with the distributor, I could give them a call and get the film on our calendar. Ninety percent of the time I would call up asking about a fairly obscure title or a foreign film or an independently made American film with no movies stars in it and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, great, when can we do that?’”
“That’s how things used to be,” she continues. “Now, things have changed. I know the people I get the films from, and some of them I can beg and cajole and maybe worm my way in to get a good one if for some reason they’re feeling generous. I also know that, with some of the distributors, there are people I do the bookings with, but there are people above them who can nix what they want to do.”
Such was the case, she says, with Amelie. A big draw like Amelie would have helped pay the way for smaller films that haven’t garnered as much publicity. Also, the finances involved in getting a “bigger” independent or foreign film to the Crystal carry less risk because of the distributor’s option to take a percentage of gross receipts over a flat fee for a print of the film.
“It’s a really crazy business,” Armstrong says. “In that the bigger and well-established companies have a lot of money and a lot of prints of their pictures. If we had gotten Amelie, the deal we would have made would have been, like, $150 versus 35 percent. And I wouldn’t even have had to send them $150, because we would have known that Amelie was going to make so much money that 35 percent of what we made was going to be way, way above $150. “So that’s easy, right?” she adds. “All you have to do is get the picture. Here’s the kicker. The smaller pictures that Amelie would have paid for, those are all little tiny companies with one or two prints in the country. Sometimes I have to send them $300 or even $500 just to get the film here. And believe me, $300 or $500 is a lot of money for the Crystal to send off into the black hole and hope to God that something like Little Otik makes $500, much less $1,500 or thereabouts at 35 percent, to even make up for our investment in it. And Little Otik, even with great reviews and a UM professor demanding that 200 of her students come to see it, sat there and laid an egg for two weeks.”
Until 1997, the Crystal Theatre was a for-profit business with an art house theater and a video store. Crystal Video is now a separate business entity and the New Crystal, as it’s now called, has been operating as a non-profit with Armstrong officially listed as an “employee” and Joel Baird acting as president of its board of directors. While non-profit status confers certain benefits and relieves the Crystal of others, the organization still has to pay quarterly federal taxes and property taxes, as well as wages for its employees. Not to mention paying off the short-term debts just to keep the place open, and a sizeable chunk of long-term debt assumed from its previous owner.
“We went into it knowing that we had to get the business healthy again and that it was going to cost a lot of money,” Armstrong says. “So boom, right off the bat, 35 grand in debt. And you have to keep going. You have to keep paying your rent, you have to keep paying to ship films in and out, you have to keep paying your insurance, you have to pay the heat bill...” “We had high aspirations of drawing a salary from this job,” she continues. “That lasted a couple of months. Truthfully, Joel and I have gone for so long without any kind of fiscal response for this business that it started to feel natural. What felt unnatural for me was asking to be paid some money. Freakish, I know, but it’s true. I don’t think anyone can look at what we’ve done over the past five years and call our dedication into question, but after five years of intense labor with no financial rewards, well, it just gets hard. It gets really hard, and you get really tired.” “We’re used to that,” agrees Baird. “It’s just the matter of not being able to survive. If you think of it as a garden, the Crystal has always been a kind of rain-starved garden. Stuff is growing in it, but it’s not making it through the season. Its history has been one of being in trouble and then me going to the bigger donors and saying, ‘Oh, I need $5,000 to fix it.’ And I’ve kind of run out of fixes.”
“I’ve always felt like it needed one of three things,” he adds. “A corner on the market, really low overhead, or a yearly angel who just wanted eccentrically to keep it open. All three would be ideal, of course. But it just kind of ran out of all three.”
As of press time, the Crystal’s seven-member board of directors was planning to convene to discuss options for the Crystal’s future, albeit in some new form. Baird won’t comment on a number of options pending, but acknowledges that one possible option could be an event-based operation as opposed to a permanent business. There has also been informal talk, it seems, of an arrangement with the International Wildlife Film Festival and Media Center that would allow the Crystal use of the old Roxy Theater. But IWFF and Media Center director Janet Rose says that nothing has been discussed between the two organizations thus far.
“A mutual board member has expressed interest in the Crystal possibly using the Roxy as a home or a place to show art films,” Rose says. “We would definitely entertain it and be happy to explore it. That’s part of what we see being here for—trying to preserve the Roxy as a downtown theater space, aside from what the Wildlife Media Center and Film Festival does. But so far, other than the one board member, nobody has called us and nobody has made a proposal, so there’s nothing to think about yet. But we would certainly be open to it.”
Meanwhile, it’s mostly business as usual for the Crystal. The last film, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, will open on June 28 and close July 3. There are still financial obligations to be met (“It costs money to stay open,” Armstrong says, “But the great irony is that it costs money to close, too.”) and a “wake” is scheduled for June 23 from 2 to 7 p.m.
“In the dark hours, you look at it like you haven’t had any success at all because the place is not financially on its own feet, can’t take care of itself, and needs to be constantly babied and suckled along,” says Armstrong. “But on the good days you look at it and think, ‘Wow, look at what we did! This is fantastic.’”
“Now that the light is at the end of the tunnel, I’m really basking in it,” she says. “I hate to say that, I really do, because it feels like some sort of a mutiny on my part. But on the other hand, what will it be like to have a life without a 20 to 40 to 60 hour a week volunteer job? Hmm, that sounds like an interesting thing to explore.”