Who remembers the Hippodrome? That gargantuan 426-seat movie theater with its 75-foot-wide screen and plush leather BMW seats was a sight to behold. After an unsuccessful run as an IMAX theater, it closed and reopened with new ownership in 2009, but following a booming summer season, ticket sales dropped off precipitously until months and months in the red forced the owners to sell.
Enter the next round of ownership. Taking the reins in January 2011, they planned to revitalize the space by transforming it into a multipurpose venue with live performances as well as movie showings. And it worked. Briefly. That business venture ended in 2013.
See a pattern here? Yes, it seems quite difficult for a movie theater to succeed on the peninsula. But with a downtown arts scene that’s diverse and flourishing, doesn’t the absence of a film culture seem out of sorts?
Well, a couple of local spots are trying to breathe life into the peninsula film culture, hoping their small contributions can nurture a growing scene, even as the absence of a true movie theater seems all the more likely to remain.
After taking control of the Charleston Music Hall in 2012, Charles Carmody couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is no one doing film downtown? This is insane!” Fortunately, the CMH offered a unique opportunity.
“We were lucky enough to have this full-size movie screen that can come down from our rafters on the stage,” says Carmody. “I bought a projector the second year I was there and we started showing films.”
Thus, the Charleston Music Hall Film Series was born.
Primarily showing music documentaries and music-related films (such as David Bowie’s “Labyrinth,” playing at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday), attendance isn’t always great, but the film series doesn’t lose money.
Just having the capability to show films has led to partnerships with the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, the BANFF Mountain Film Festival World Tour and the Fly Fishing Film Tour, all of which bring out crowds of more than 700 moviegoers. “A bunch of flannel-wearing dudes with beards come out and watch these fly fishing films,” says Carmody.
Not limiting the selection to just music films has always been part of Carmody’s plan. In 2014, the CMH partnered with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art to show “Watermark,” a documentary on how water shapes humanity.
Just this past spring, “Bikes vs Cars,” a poignant documentary highlighting the conflicts between bike riders, cars and a world dependent on fossil fuels, was part of the film series.
Being that the CMH is so readily booked with live performances, Carmody is satisfied with keeping the screenings steady at one or two a month. But rest assured, the film series isn’t going anywhere. “I love the medium. I love film and I want to see more of it,” he says.
Just a few blocks from the Music Hall at 37 John St. is Pulp Books and Gallery at 535 King St.
Converse with owner Will Eiseman and it won’t take long to realize he is an avid film lover.
“My dream in life would be to own a movie theater,” he says. And now he does, sort of.
In the back of Pulp, there is a cozy little theater with black walls, comfy mismatched upholstered chairs, and an 18-foot-wide screen. At 8 p.m. every Sunday, The Phantom Film Society at Pulp screens a film that Eiseman selects from his vast collection of rare domestic and foreign films.
Says Eiseman, “I’ll show you movies you’ve never seen but I promise you, none of them are bad movies.” This week, he’ll be showing “Pump Up The Volume,” a coming-of-age teen comedy starring Christian Slater that is sure to be a hoot.
Eiseman has lived all over the world, but one thing has remained a constant: He has always held film screenings. “I love film and I want to share the things I love with other people,” he says. Unfortunately, in the four months since he opened, he hasn’t found much of an audience. “Attendance goes between one and 20. More towards the one.”
Having worked in the film industry, Eiseman still has connections and plans to have Q&A sessions over Skype with actors and directors. Some big names he has in mind: Steven Soderbergh, Brian De Palma, and Russell Crowe.
But first things first: He needs an audience.
Attendance is the crux of this issue. Even The American Theater on King Street, which was a great success when it opened in 1942, saw dwindling ticket sales in the 1960s until it finally shut down in 1977. It is now a private event space and Randall Goldman, CEO of property owner Patrick Properties, says the company has no intention of changing it back.
“We’ve been very happy with the success of The American Theater as an exquisite, historic venue.”
Goldman, like Carmody and Eiseman, is a downtown resident who would love to see a movie theater on the peninsula, but he understands the economic hurdles may be insurmountable.
Simply put, there aren’t enough people downtown to sustain a movie theater.
With high rent and licensing fees, a theater would have to draw people from off the peninsula, and with theaters in West Ashley, Mount Pleasant and on James Island, that seems unlikely.
Sure, showing art house films and movies with a limited release might help, but the Terrace Theater already provides that service.
The Terrace plays an important role in the community, but the issue is about geographical proximity. Downtown is the area’s cultural hub with multiple thriving art scenes — world-renowned visual artists, nationally touring bands, acclaimed theater companies — so doesn’t it feel incomplete without a true movie theater? “It’s important for any city to have,” Carmody says.
At least there are people like Carmody and Eiseman doing their best to bring a film culture to the peninsula, and hopefully more will follow suit, but those of us waiting for a theater to open downtown are going to have to wait a while.
And we’re probably waiting in vain.