'Ready, fire, aim': Brunswick theater owner pins hopes on expansion plan
BRUNSWICK — The Town Council has received dozens of letters from supporters of the Eveningstar Cinema, all asking the town to support the independent movie theater's efforts to build a new location at the Brunswick Station.
It's the kind of project that captures the imagination.
In fact, more people have written to support the single-screen film house than have written to express an opinion on the pending $36 million school budget.
Debra Blum of the town manager's office said she received 27 letters about the theater last week alone.
Town Councilor Benet Pols, however, said the well-intended missives are misdirected.
"As of now there is no role for the Town Council ... to play in moving the Eveningstar over to Maine Street Station," Pols wrote. "Although the town played a role in the redevelopment we no longer own the land over there. In fact, we are a tenant."
Like the independent film director that he is, Barry Norman, owner of the Eveningstar, has a vision.
Since early January he has envisioned a four-screen theater occupying the vacant lot opposite Scarlet Begonias restaurant on Station Avenue. It would expand on his current offerings, maintain his devotion to independent cinema, and possibly incorporate other features, such as a coffee bar and an international film festival.
Norman said he has a strong business plan and a time line for a $3.7 million theater construction project.
What he doesn't have is $3.7 million.
The funding shortfall is part of the reason that Norman asked his theater's patrons to express their support.
It was part of what he calls a "ready, fire, aim," approach.
"One reason was to make sure that I'm in the public officials' consciousness as something that people value in the community," he said. "The other thing – obviously the No. 1 obstacle to any project like this – is funding. I thought 'this is one more possible way to shake the bushes.'"
Tom Rumpf is a former Freeport town councilor and a patron of the Eveningstar. He said he and his wife go about once a month to see the latest offering; last week, at a showing of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," they bumped into a couple of friends and they all met up for dinner afterward.
Experiences like that are important, both from a community-building perspective, and from an economic development perspective, Rumpf said.
He said the theater is important for a vital downtown in Brunswick.
"In Freeport, there was a big move to get a theater because shoppers wanted something else to do than shop," Rumpf said. "That was one of the key strategies they had. We already have that here in Brunswick. I would hate to see it lost."
Like many movie heroes, Norman is a fish out of water, struggling to succeed against imposing obstacles.
He said he has been talking to banks and venture capitalists in an effort to find an investment partner, which isn't exactly his strong suit.
"I've never done this before, so I'm learning as I go," he said.
There also aren't many precedents to give the financial world a good idea of what to expect from a project like this.
"This doesn't happen a lot," he said.
That makes projecting revenues difficult, which in turn means that the picture of the payback period can be a little out of focus.
Norman said he is more likely to attract investors who are interested in doing something good, both for the independent film scene and for the town.
"Anyone who gets involved with the movie theatre is going to do so because they realize it's a tremendous asset to the community," he said.
The community appeal of a theater is one of the reasons that JHR Development, which owns Brunswick Station, supports the deal, project manager Mike Lyne said.
"We love the use," he said. "A cinema or a theater complex at one point was really looked at in the initial planning of this project."
While the land is permitted for condominiums, Lyne said there are no active plans to build them, in part because of the sluggish housing economy.
While it's not time to roll the end credits on Eveningstar just yet, there is a limited window of opportunity to make the project happen. If the new venture doesn't get off the ground, the current theater is likely to fail – in part because Norman's current projector is for traditional 35mm film.
Distributors are moving quickly to the digital format, which requires pricey digital projectors.
The prices are coming down, but not quickly enough to put them within reach of Norman and many other independent theater operators across the country.
"A few months ago, it was $70,000. Now I hear it's as low as $59,000," Norman said. "That's still tough for something that doesn't bring in a nickel of revenue."
One of Norman's major distributors has announced plans to switch to only digital releases at the end of this year.
"If they hold true to that, I would have to convert by the end of this year," he said. "I'm thinking by January 2013, I better have the equipment here to operate."
If he had a commitment for the new project, Norman said he could see putting a projector in at the existing location and then moving it into the new location, which he hopes could be built by the fall of 2013.
"I would rather do that than go dark," he said. "I don't want to close this."
Lyne said that JHR is also seeking help to finance the deal.
"We've got banking relationships," he said, "so we speak to our banks and our investors."
Lyne said JHR is inclined to wait and see how this particular story plays out before considering embarking on another project. The banks and investors will eventually give enough feedback to let them know whether the project can move forward.
"Eventually, I think we'll know whether it's feasible or not," he said. "We're not going to actively pursue anything else for that lot."