Wilma Theater puts winter movies on hold 

Missoulians wanting to cope with the January cold by taking refuge in the warm glow of an art film will just have to go to the Crystal this year.

The Wilma Theater will be taking a hiatus from showing films this month, says Barbara Bick, CEO of the Wilma Amusement Company.

The essence of the decision is that the Wilma, constrained by a lack of access to desirable films, has decided to quit settling for less just to have a movie showing all the time, Bick says. She blames the relationship between Hollywood studios and the large movie theaters, which makes it difficult for small, independent theaters to compete.

“We don’t have equal access to titles and it’s not because I have a lousy booker, and it’s not because we don’t pore over Variety week after week after week looking for movies that are coming and it’s not because we don’t bid on them,” Bick says.

Chain theaters with many screens give Hollywood an outlet for its many mediocre and failed films, so the studios are indebted to the chains and give them exclusive access to their blockbusters, Bick says.

This leaves smaller theaters with the movies the chains reject. At the Wilma, sometimes this has given them dibs on sleeper hits like 2001’s Memento and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Other times, however, the theater has ended up with nothing to show but weak films, which hurt other vital businesses like concession sales.

So for January, the Wilma will be focusing on renovations, notably to its on-stage electrical system. Bick will also be keeping a close eye on what happens with Carmike Cinemas, the Georgia-based national chain that operates three theaters in Missoula with a total of 19 screens. The chain filed for Chapter 11 protection in August of 2000, and is now in the second phase of the bankruptcy process.

“If we were all playing on an equal playing field it would be different, but we’re not,” Bick says. “You never want to speak ill of someone’s business, but if Carmike turns around and closes a bunch of screens as they have done in many markets, the Wilma will be afforded an opportunity at a better product.”

Carmike’s public relations representative was away for the New Year’s holiday and could not be reached for comment. The message on the front page of the company’s Web site, however, provides a telling glimpse into Carmike’s view on local competition:

“In our quest to be the sole or leading exhibitor in small- to mid-sized communities, Carmike has positioned itself in 35 states with 329 theatres and 2,361 screens as of September 30, 2001.”

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