I don’t remember my first visit to Vinegar Hill Theatre. It was the mid-to-late ’80s, so it was probably a children’s film; a collection of cartoon shorts, or an obscure foreign import. What I do remember is my dozens of trips there in the ’90s. By middle school I knew I wanted to make movies, and Vinegar Hill was like a small film school, where I had my first exposure to filmmakers like John Sayles and Jim Jarmusch.
Opened in 1976 by Ann Porotti and her then-husband, Vinegar Hill was the first movie house in Charlottesville to consciously brand itself as an “art house” theater, showing weekly double-bills of foreign films, unusual independent fare, and old Hollywood classics. The pairings were clever and sometimes off-beat, but the theater drew a devoted crowd—the monthly schedules of upcoming films hung on the refrigerator of most homes I visited, usually next to a WTJU marathon schedule.
Charlottesville was once dotted with small, often locally-owned movie theaters. University Theater on the Corner, the Greenbrier Theater on Route 29, the Terrace Triple, the Jefferson Downtown—even Barrack’s Road was the site of a drive-in theater in the 1960s. One by one, they all closed, as they became run-down, obsolete, or were pushed out of business by larger chains. But Vinegar Hill stuck around.
I got to know Vinegar Hill better during my years working for the Virginia Film Festival. In 2008, the night before the festival opened, Ann Porotti announced she was closing Vinegar Hill and the film festival would be the final event there. By the second day of the festival, Adam and Shelah Greenbaum, a couple who had relocated from New York to Staunton to open the Visulite, decided to buy the theater. They had been doing well and were looking to expand to another location. By the time the festival wrapped up that weekend, Vinegar Hill was set to re-open, and I would be the new manager.
We closed for 10 days and re-opened before many of the regular customers even realized we had closed. We got lucky in landing one of the biggest-ever hits that Christmas, with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which ran for a record-breaking 15 weeks. We hit the ground running and learned on the job.
The four years I’ve spent at Vinegar Hill have been some of the most rewarding, and sometimes the most frustrating, of my adult life. I feel honored to help keep a treasured Charlottesville institution alive, even as the 50-year-old building has given me a lot of unexpected lessons in on-the-spot heating and plumbing repair.
With Regal opening a new 14-screen megaplex on Hydraulic Road this week, plenty of people have asked me if I think Vinegar Hill can stick around. Charlottesville is a “closed market,” meaning the distributors won’t give a film to more than one theater in the area. It’s true that for big money-makers like Black Swan, Midnight in Paris, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or Beasts of the Southern Wild, we often compete with chains like Regal. But we take the lead on smaller films like Kid With a Bike, A Separation, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I Am Love, which are some of the best films I’ve seen in the past few years.
The most immediate problem facing Vinegar Hill isn’t competition; it’s the conversion to digital. “This is something that’s been a long time in the making,” said Adam Greenbaum. “The studios have been pushing for this digital conversion for about 10 years. It saves the studios tens of millions of dollars a year in print costs if they can distribute digitally. There’s been a fair amount of resistance on the part of the theater owners, but finally the studios drew a line in the sand and said ‘here’s the date, we’re going to cease distributing film, you’re either on board or you’re not.’”
For a theater like Vinegar Hill the conversation about digital vs. film is no longer a question of aesthetics. “It’s a necessity for our survival, to convert to digital,” said Greenbaum. “In some ways it’s sad. It’s the end of an era, the end of a format.” But digital conversion has its advantages. “In the past, there’s been a strict pecking order, in terms of markets,” Greenbaum said. “Charlottesville doesn’t often get films until they’ve already played in bigger markets, because they want to maximize the print. With digital [distribution], we’ll be able to get smaller films, sooner.”
To offset the cost of the digital conversion, Vinegar Hill is selling t-shirts, tote bags, and mugs, as part of a “Save Vinegar Hill” fundraiser. The “save” part isn’t hyperbole. Without digital projection, we’ll soon have to close. But we’re not asking the customers for pity; just for their ongoing support. “If it’s lost, it’s not something that’s going to come back,” said Greenbaum. “It’s not like someone else is going to come in and open a new indie theater in this market. It’s really important to the cultural voice of Charlottesville that there be places like Vinegar Hill—otherwise it’d just be anywhere, USA. Lots of places have Regals, but very few have a Vinegar Hill.”
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