I haven’t gone to the Market Arcade Theater in years. I can’t seem to find a reason to.
We used to go to morning critics’ screenings there frequently. I even knew where the secret truck delivery button was at the back entrance to tell the employees inside that someone needed to be let in. Because of its downtown proximity to The News, it was an enormously convenient place for me to see movie screenings.
Morning critics’ screenings now take place elsewhere. And I don’t frequent the plays put on by the Road Less Traveled Productions or the Buffalo Film Seminars of classic movies put on by Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian, two of the bigger standing draws to the Market Arcade Theaters downtown.
I am not alone.
The theater, we have learned from news stories, has skidded into a rough patch. Crucial upgrades are needed for digital projection and politicians are pawky. Isn’t that always the way? When money needs to be spent, that always translates, for some pols, to “why bother? The city (or the county or the state or the federal government) shouldn’t be in the culture business.”
To which the only far-sighted answer is “of course they should.” If you don’t care about the quality of life of your electoral constituency, you may well be in the wrong line of work.
I couldn’t possibly be more in support of whatever needs to be done to keep the Market Arcade fully and usefully functional as a downtown movie theater and major public resource in this city. At the same time, it needs to be looked at realistically.
And then, with all realism possible, understood where realism has to give way to something else.
We know what the truth is, especially those of us who have been dealing with stories of theater district struggles and scramblings for decades. A downtown theater district was a wonderful dream. And as with so many wonderful dreams, practical thought came later, if at all.
The biggest ill-considered downtown dream, of course, was a rapid transit system that would connect downtown Buffalo to a bustling and culturally avid UB community just dying to partake of downtown Buffalo’s cosmopolitan life.
That dream was damaging enough that the city is finally – and wisely – bringing traffic back to Main Street downtown so that it can return to being the urban street it needs to be and not just urban scenery for a commuter train’s minimal ridership.
Unfortunately, the Real Estate/Government/Culture nexus was always doomed to be an uncomfortable one at best. It succeeded in eventually euthanizing the Studio Arena Theater and anesthetizing the Tralfamadore as the regular jazz-plus club it had been when the Lawson Brothers were seduced into bringing it downtown from its cellar hegemony on Main and Fillmore.
And the Market Arcade Theater has been, from the first, what you might well call, “conflicted.”
It is a huge irony that the exact kind of civic disorder problems that downtown developers were so terrified of at the outset of the Market Arcade actually have transpired during a couple of holiday showings at the Elmwood Regal Theater on separate years. With a beefed-up police and security presence, they haven’t stopped the Elmwood Regal from being a going concern in the movie exhibition business. It’s a local destination theater for people from Kenmore, the Elmwood Village and the Delaware district in general.
Some facts everyone needs to face:
• Whatever the bottom line says, the stewardship of the Dipson Theaters, as employees of the corporation that runs the theater has seemed, all in all, a dedicated and reasonably good one. Though there are a couple of similarities in Dipson’s troubles as a lessee at the North Park Theater (which is being splendidly refurbished under new management even as we speak), the important basic difference at the Market Arcade is that the decisions were always made elsewhere. Dipson is just a hired operator, not a lessee.
It is therefore absolutely not Dipson’s place to install digital projection upgrades.
To its enormous credit, Dipson has always been open to showing film festivals and locally made films at the Market Arcade Theater. My only criticism of Dipson’s operation of the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, frankly, is that at least one multiplex screen should have been faithfully set aside – and kept, hell or high water – as a venue for art and independent film. But when I asked Dipson President Michael Clement about that he said, quite frankly, that art films always “bombed downtown, especially compared to commercial films.”
How on earth can anyone tell a practical businessman to continue a policy of financial failure? In my view – a long view which costs me nothing out of pocket – the “loss leader” effect of continuing to book financial clunkers might, nevertheless, have given the theater a crucial community identity along with the Amherst (and now Eastern Hills) at a time like now when an identity is desperately needed. But that’s an awful lot of bottom-line patience to ask a canny businessman to have on a week to week basis.
His company is very good at what it does, but having to survive political infighting really shouldn’t be part of it.
• The enormous success of the Shea’s operation is indicative of absolutely nothing downtown. One continuing downtown theater smash doth not a “theater district” make.
What’s most significant about the Shea’s is its wall-to-wall presence in Buffalo media and, indeed, among Buffalo consumers of all sorts. Shea’s touring productions are sold to us everywhere – billboards, TV, all over newspapers. Anyone in Buffalo, for instance, who somehow doesn’t know that “Wicked” is returning for a Shea’s Buffalo run is someone so cut off from the world that their neighbors ought to be looking in on them every few days.
The one difficult element Clement had at both the Market Arcade AND the North Park Theater is the reluctance of distributors to allow some major films to be shown at those theaters.
No matter what kind of unrest infrequently afflicted the Elmwood Regal Theater parking lot, why would a distributor bypass such a chain operation that’s usually smoothly run in favor of an independent ?
That’s been one curse of the Market Arcade Theater. With a lineup almost identical with other theaters, the people who go to the Market Arcade are the people who specifically want to go to a downtown movie theater. There is seldom anything else special to draw them,
Assuming that a post-racial America is so firmly established in 21st century Buffalo that suburbanites will be eager to come to a downtown so close to the inner city, is an assumption perhaps more idealistic than realistic.
But, at the same time, ditching every ounce of idealism about what so many have wanted downtown Buffalo to be for so long, is more community despair, frankly, than I’m ready to sign up for.
It is, as so many have said, the very idea of a downtown Buffalo WITHOUT a working movie multiplex that’s an appalling one.
Negotiations, I’m told, are ongoing.
And, under the circumstances, they’re delicate. (What else could they be?)
What needs to be done, it seems to me, is obvious.
Giving up is not an option.