End near for Hippodrome?

Michael Furlinger says his 426-seat Hippodrome movie theater could close unless more people come in to the downtown theater.

It could be curtains for downtown Charleston's Hippodrome Theater if attendance doesn't pick up.

Co-owners Michael Furlinger and John Brieger said Tuesday ticket sales dropped off precipitously after last summer's blockbuster season and the single-screen theater could close by Sept. 1 if people don't start showing up in greater numbers.

"We are currently losing between $5,000 and $10,000 per month," Furlinger said. "We just can't keep spending money for the fun of it."

The co-owners say they love the 426-seat theater so much they can't bring themselves to darken the 75-foot-wide screen, the largest in Charleston.

"You can't go in there and not say, 'This is amazing,' " Furlinger said. "Everything there is perfect. It's beautiful. It's the same price as other theaters in town. It even has free parking now. I can't believe the city will not support a downtown theater. It's a shame."

The theater is offering free parking after 6 p.m. and on the weekends on the left side of the building.

Furlinger and Brieger opened the wide-screen former IMAX theater last May two years after it closed. They had great success early on as summer blockbusters brought in the crowds, but when school started in August, ticket sales began to dim.

"Since then, we have had a good week here or there and would see a small ray of hope, but by the next Friday it would be back to where it was before," Furlinger said.

During the recent showing of the Japanese film, "Seven Samurai," the cinema saw 25 patrons for two shows, he said.

"This is one of the rare times I have ever been stumped," Furlinger, who has been involved in several business ventures, said when asked why the theater isn't doing better.

Possibly biting into sales was the new IMAX theater that opened in October at Citadel Mall's new 16-screen megaplex. Another possible factor is that the one-screen downtown theater is limited to showing one movie at a time, Brieger said.

"We don't know why people left," Brieger said. "Last year we were competing well on the same title. I guess people are in the habit of going to a multiplex."

Furlinger and Brieger sold the Terrace Theatre on James Island earlier this year to concentrate solely on the Hippodrome.

Under normal conditions, Furlinger said that they would close a failing business and move on to a new project, but they think the Hippodrome is different.

"Everyone that leaves the theater raves how unbelievable the experience is and how much they treasure the theater," Furlinger said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, there are just not enough locals supporting the theater. The largest screen in Charleston, leather BMW seating, unbelievable sound and now free parking are just not enough. We have decided to give it a go until Sept. 1 if we can hang on that long and the community rallies around the theater."

The co-owners hope the pre-summer season opener, "Iron Man 2," which starts at midnight May 6, will bring moviegoers back to the Hippodrome.

"We've never had a business where we had to say, 'Please support us,' but we think it's worth saving," Furlinger said. "I believe it's one of the top 25 movie theaters in the country."

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.