Charlottesville’s last independently owned movie theater goes dark

Vinegar Hill could not compete against the corporate muscle of the Regal Cinemas movie theater chain in a closed market.
File photo Vinegar Hill could not compete against the corporate muscle of the Regal Cinemas movie theater chain in a closed market. File photo

Vinegar Hill Theatre closed its doors on Sunday after 37 years in business. The decision came suddenly, just 6 days before closure. This was written as preparations were being made for the final weekend, and by the time you read this Vinegar Hill will be gone.

The major reason that Vinegar Hill Theatre closed is that it wasn’t able to show enough financially successful films anymore. Though I managed the business, the booking of films was not my responsibility. Visulite Cinemas owner, Adam Greenbaum, and a booking agent named Jeffrey Jacobs who works with many small theaters across the East coast, handled the Vinegar Hill film programming.

Charlottesville is a closed market, meaning that distributors will only give each film to one theater in town at a time. Vinegar Hill had been the last remaining locally owned screen in the area. The other 20 first-run screens are all owned by Regal Cinemas, the largest movie theater chain in the country (by a significant margin), leaving Vinegar Hill in the tough situation of being a small business competing against a national one for the same products.

I’ve been the manager at Vinegar Hill for the past five years, and I’ve written in this column about the difficulties the theatre was facing, as well as the endangered nature of small businesses elsewhere in the Charlottesville arts community. The cost of living in Charlottesville is still getting higher, local businesses are struggling here just as they are everywhere, and I often worry that as a community, we aren’t leaving space in our city, physically or economically, for local business and culture.

Those are all important issues, but at the present, I’ll focus on the details surrounding Vinegar Hill’s closure. As is always the case with such events, there is sure to be a great deal of rumor, presumption, and misunderstanding, especially because the closure happened so swiftly.

One misconception is that Vinegar Hill lost its physical space. Since 2008, Visulite Cinemas has leased the theatre, and in February of this year the owner decided to sell and put the building on the market. (As of this writing, it has not yet sold.) The theatre continued to rent on a month-to-month basis. There was not an eviction, and the “For Sale” sign in back is not the reason that Vinegar Hill closed, but with the looming possibility of a sale, it’s fair to say that there was less incentive for the movie house to remain open.

Another question is about the conversion to digital projection. Vinegar Hill realized in 2012 that it would need to replace 35mm film with digital in response to changing distribution models in the film industry. A fundraiser was held to offset the cost of a digital projector, and the format was converted in February, allowing movies to screen digitally for the last six months. The expense of the new projector certainly didn’t help matters, but the need for conversion wasn’t the reason for the closure.

Greenbaum spoke candidly about the situation. “Our ability to book the quality of film that we have been booking, for the last five years, has been undercut by the competitive clout of the nation’s largest movie theater circuit,” he said. “We couldn’t continue to deliver the same quality of movies that we have been.”

“The situation changed dramatically when Regal opened Stonefield and converted their Downtown location to [an] art [theater]. Let’s assume that Regal makes decisions rationally, and that they didn’t decide to take low-grossing, obscure art films, and cut their own revenue at the Downtown Mall practically in half, just because they’re masochistic. They must have had a reason. Just like a Wal-Mart, or a chain grocery store, doesn’t drop its prices out of love for its customers. It’s because they know their competition can’t keep up.”

One by one, the major indie distributors —Focus, Fox Searchlight, and finally Sony Classics—started giving their most successful products to the Regal theaters, and we found that we could only pick up low-
grossing films with the hope of breaking even, or booking films from much smaller distributors, who do far less advertising and often release films to streaming services simultaneously. Many of the films shown were quite good—some were excellent—but none of them were doing well enough to keep Vinegar Hill in business.

“What’s really frustrating is that Vinegar Hill, as a business, needs maybe three big movies a year, in order to be profitable,” Greenbaum explained. “That’s it. The rest of the year, it could be small films, all sorts of interesting films, that are under the radar. But it needs a Black Swan, a Crazy Heart, a Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a Midnight in Paris. It needs a handful of ‘big,’ and I say ‘big’ in quotes, art movies. And that spigot has been completely turned off.”

“It is really hard for me to speak on it with any kind of emotional distance,” he said. “With the decision [to close], I continued to be hopeful up until the very end. But with nothing on the horizon, and the studios making it clear that, pretty much, everything of value on the horizon would be going to the Regal, it kind of sunk in. This is the state of the industry in Charlottesville right now. The landscape is inhospitable to an independent venue. But I don’t think that it’s dead forever, I’ll put it that way.”

Share your thoughts on the closing of Vinegar Hill Theatre in the comments section below.

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