At the Music Box, Empty Seats Are A Sign of Progress

By Patty Wetli | Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Empty seats are a positive sign: they're being refurbished. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Music Box

Last winter, the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., added a windscreen to its front entrance. It was a minor alteration, and a pretty common one at that for city storefronts, aimed at lowering the building’s heating bill and shielding patrons in the lobby from the elements. “We had people complain, ‘It doesn’t look right,’” says Dave Jennings, the theatre’s general manager.

Welcome to the world of vintage art house cinema.

For Jennings, who began his stint as GM in February 2009 after spending years working in live theater, overseeing a cinema that’s been in operation since 1929 requires a constant balancing act between improving the moviegoing experience for customers and maintaining the unique character that draws these same people to the Music Box in the first place. “It’s an argument that we have in our office every day,” he says. Give him a half-million dollars and Jennings would gladly repair chunks of missing plaster. “It would be awesome. But people would say, ‘This isn’t the Music Box I know and love.’”

Recent decisions to replace electrical wiring and upgrade to digital projectors went largely unnoticed by the general public, but a current remodeling effort to refurbish nearly 750 seats is sure to draw attention. “When seats disappear, you can’t hide it,” Jennings says. “This is the first thing a lot of people will be able to see as a major change.”

In an ideal world, the Music Box would simply have purchased new seats, the mere mention of which provoked the kind of staff debate one can hardly imagine taking place at Cinemark headquarters. Should they look like something that belongs in a megaplex, vintage like the Goodman, or a restored version of the existing seats? Cost considerations and a staff obsession with recycling and reusing easily tipped the scale in favor of refurbishing: Over the course of several rounds, 140 chairs at a time, the seats and backs will be removed, the fabric replaced and restuffed, and the metal frames repainted. “But we still don’t have cupholders,” notes Jennings. “It’s an argument. There weren’t cupholders in 1929.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way in amenities, baby, but one similarity exists between 2011 and the early years of the Music Box: economic uncertainty. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, Americans flocked to the movies, partly as a means of escapism, but also as a morale builder. “That was the only way to get news,” Jennings notes, “and [the movies] were still a novelty.” Today, Netflix, the Internet and video on demand are siphoning off movie theater customers.

“Internet usage spikes at home from six to 10 p.m.,” cites Jennings. “So many people are streaming films. More and more people are staying home instead of going out.”

A November screening of "Young Adult" featured actor Patton Oswalt, screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. Credit: Ari Neiditz Photography

Though the Music Box, which presents 300 films a year, boasts its share of hardcore fans (the elderly woman who calls every Wednesday for the schedule of Sunday matinees; the gentleman who drives in from Iowa every week for a Music Box-Siskel Center-Landmark Century trifecta), to put more bodies in those soon-to-be reupholstered seats, the theatre has become increasingly reliant on unique programming and ticket discounts. “Mondays are way busier here,” says Jennings, pointing to $5 ticket prices that make the start of each work week slightly more palatable. “You can get two tickets and two popcorns for under 20 bucks.”

The Music Box has also beefed up its schedule of special events, including talk-backs with directors. “Theaters have always looked for ways to make things more interesting. In the ’30s, it was show up on a Wednesday night and get a new plate. The recession has forced us to go to more and interesting spectacles to get people to want to go out and do things,” Jennings explains. Popular standbys include midnight showings, which tend to draw the “twenties hipsters,” and the annual Christmas sing-a-long paired with screenings of White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. “Over the course of seven days of [the Christmas] show, we’ll probably have about 12,000 people come through the doors,” says Jennings. “It’s insane.”

A recent re-release of Raiders of the Lost Ark (intended to prime the pump for a forthcoming Blu-Ray offering) went over gangbusters. “We were the only theater in the country for the first week of the screening,” Jennings says. “We expected it to do well but we didn’t expect that in the first three days we’d have 2,000 people.” At the time of our interview, the film was into its fourth week, a rarity for the Music Box, which can seldom hold films that long. (Scheduling issues are the reason the  Music Box frequently loses out on the more popular art house flicks, including the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was actually distributed by the affiliated Music Box Films. Ouch. “It played at the Century, which could hold it a lot longer,” Jennings explains.)

Collaborations with the National Theatre of London and the Sundance Film Festival are additional coming attractions. Cinemas across the country, including large chains such as AMC, have been experimenting with screening live stage and concert performances. In partnering with the National Theatre, the Music Box lured British expatriates keen on viewing a critically-acclaimed production of Frankenstein, with a new season of performances set to run January through April 2012. “It’s certainly not the same as sitting in the National Theatre,” says Jennings, “but it’s certainly a different experience than seeing a movie.”

In much the same way, no one is ever going to mistake Southport Avenue for Park City, Utah, but for movie buffs, the Music Box is as close to Sundance as they’re likely to get, without having to run into all those pesky celebrities. For the third consecutive year, the Music Box is one of 10 theaters selected to screen an official Sundance entry in tandem with the festival. “We have no idea what the movie will be,” says Jennings, “but tickets are already selling.” Perhaps buyers are banking on a repeat of the 2010 event, when Philip Seymour Hoffman turned up at the Music Box to introduce his directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating. Tickets sold out within 24 hours of the announcement of Hoffman’s appearance. “Some people are just taking a chance,” Jennings speculates. (Chris Rock has a movie in competition this year, to start the rumor mongering.)

Moviegoers lined up down the block for a March screening of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Credit: Ari Neiditz Photography.

To promote these “spectacles,” the Music Box is turning more and more to social media, historical accuracy be damned. What, you were expecting the town crier? “Our advertising budget has crumbled,” says Jennings. “There are five of us that interact with Twitter and Facebook for the Music Box, and we are currently partnered with a local company on Ravenswood getting training and support for future social media endeavors. Social media has become a major part of our process, but mostly because it is a form of ‘word of mouth,’ which is the only form of advertising we can really afford.”

Given the Music Box’s incredibly diverse audience, ranging from fans of horror film cult classics to documentary devotees, Jennings is all but guaranteed that any one of his new ventures will appeal to somebody. “When we throw something up there, someone will come,” he says, even if that literally translates into a lone individual.

“In live theater, you cancel a performance if there are fewer people in the audience than cast members,” Jennings says. Not so at the Music Box. “We will run a film for one person.” Really, one person? He laughs, “I think we did last night.”

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