Homer Theatre aims for revitalization

Facing financial crisis, the movie theatre fights to keep its doors open

The Homer Theatre wants you to come down and enjoy nights of great cinema.

Between battling the impacts of increased at-home streaming availability and the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater is facing financial difficulties that may make impossible its continued presence in the Homer community, said owner Jamie Sutton during a June 22 interview.

“We’re just trying to keep the doors open for the community and it has become a dire situation — the most (dire), in my nearly 20 years of managing the theater,” Homer Theatre manager Colleen Carroll said in a separate interview on June 22. “I think it’s a big result of people’s habits changing from COVID. We were battling the streaming experience before COVID, but it is just substantially worse now.”

‘People just don’t come out’

Low movie attendance is perhaps the biggest hurdle the theater is currently facing.

“We have one screen, and we try to make the picks based on what they’re making out in the world and what we think Homer patrons would enjoy. But sometimes people just don’t come out,” Carroll said, noting that many movies they expected good revenue for just didn’t get the attendance they counted on.

“The theater staff, we’re just standing here with question marks on our faces like ‘why aren’t people coming out, where are they?’”

Additionally, studio policies that require newly released movies to be held by theaters for two or three weeks have continuously presented challenges to the Homer Theatre.

“The current programming mandate that we have received from the studios is really untenable for us,” Sutton said. “Because if we want to show a movie when the movie first opens … the studios insist that you keep it and show it for, in all cases two weeks, and in some cases three weeks. But … in a town the size of Homer, by the time the first week is over, if you want to see this movie, you’ve seen it. So for us to show a movie mandatorily for two weeks … is just devastating. We’ve gone through the entire population of people who are interested. That’s something that we recognize and we are going to have to change.”

The theater is currently open four days a week, Friday through Monday, with a “last chance” or “throwback” film also shown on Thursday nights, a schedule leftover from changes prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Theater management is looking to change that in the near future, according to Sutton.

“I do think that we need to be open seven days a week doing something,” he said. “And by that I mean showing our lead movie six days a week (and) having alternative content.”

More than a movie theater

Sutton and Carroll are working to come up with creative ways to attract community members to the theater and draw in more revenue in order to keep the theater in business. They already have a variety of different ideas in mind, from offering more diverse presentations including live music performances to adding more food items to their menu to renting out the theater for local individuals, nonprofits and businesses to host their own events.

One such example is the free showing of “Sound of Freedom” on July 6, sponsored by Alaska State House Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer).

Carroll wrote in an email to Homer News that the Homer Theatre is “so much more than just a movie theater.”

The theater, for example, hosts Homer Rope Tow’s Annual Warren Miller Ski Film fundraising event, the Homer Documentary Film Festival, South Peninsula Behavioral Health Center’s Annual DeStig Cinema Series, Hospice of Homer’s Winter Film Series, Homer Council on the Arts music events, community nonprofit annual meeting events and fundraising film events, she wrote.

“This doesn’t include the countless birthday parties, or employee appreciation movie nights, friend/family viewing of a favorite series finale, or even the wedding proposal down in the front row,” she wrote.

In addition to coming out to watch movies or attend events, there are a number of other ways the Homer community can support their local theater.

“Yes, we recognize that people will come out to the movies if it’s a movie that they want to see,” Carroll said. “But there are other ways to support the theater if you’re not much of a moviegoer. Just come off the street and come get some concessions. We do have quite a few people that come in routinely just for popcorn. That happens quite often, so we’d love to see that more.”

The theater also offers screen advertising opportunities for local businesses to place an ad in the theater’s pre-show, created in-house by theater management. Community members can also purchase movie passes or movie punch cards as gifts.

“You might not be a moviegoer, but maybe you know somebody in your life who is. Movie passes make a great gift,” Carroll said.

‘Homer would be a lesser place’

The Homer Theatre isn’t the only one facing difficulties — many small or single-screen theatres across the country were forced to shut their doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of those have never reopened, according to multiple news sources including a March 11 report by CBS News about Hollywood actors working to save struggling small-town theaters.

“Although the [Homer T]heater was a marginal business pre-COVID, we were able to pay the bills and there was always a movie coming down the pike that would bring in the crowds to help us weather the leaner times,” Carroll wrote in an email to Homer News. “Coming back from the pandemic, there has been a noticeable decline in attendance across the board. I have been surprised so many times over at movies that we fully expected good numbers for (that) just never manifested.”

Sutton also noted that several communities across Alaska have also lost their theaters for a number of reasons.

“In Seward, they used to have a movie theatre and it’s gone. It shut down about 10 years ago. I think in the transition to digital, they just decided they couldn’t make it,” he said.

Above all, both Sutton and Carroll are concerned about the impact the theater’s closing would have on the community.

“We believe in the theater as a community asset. We view it as our contribution to Homer,” Sutton said. “It is true that folks could sit at home and be entertained, but if they want to be a part of the community and see their friends and get out in the world, it seems to us that having a theater where people can gather and enjoy or inform themselves collectively … is a really important thing to have in any community. Without a movie theater, Homer would be a lesser place.”

A family entertainment option for generations, the Homer Theatre was built in 1956 and purchased by Sutton and his wife in 2001.

“We say that the Homer Theatre is the longest continuously running movie theatre in Alaska. Aside from a few months during COVID, it’s never closed; it’s never been shut down,” Sutton said.

The Suttons began revamping the theater building upon purchase, replacing all the seats and building on the front facade and walkway to model what the theater would have looked like if it were built when Homer was first established. They are also responsible for installing a surround sound system and bringing the theater into the digital age. At the beginning of this year, theater management again updated their digital server and projector to a digital laser system in order to always offer theater patrons the quality sound and projection they would expect from a movie theater.

“We are as sophisticated in terms of presentation as any theater in the U.S.,” Sutton said.

The Homer Theatre has a “fantastic lineup” of movies scheduled for the summer, according to Carroll, including “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” “Elemental” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and invites community members to come down to see them and have fun together.

“It would truly be a devastating loss to the community to see the Homer Theatre close its doors,” Carroll wrote. “Let’s keep the magic of the movies here in Homer, instead of driving an hour and a half away.”

For more information or to see current or upcoming show times, visit www.homertheatre.com/.