It would be a shame if the Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre had to shut down due to financial constraints, but there must be a balance between what should be publicly supported and what should be privately inspired.
The Common Council has its collective heart in the right place by exploring adding $250,000 to the city’s 2014 capital budget for new digital projectors and examining other funding for the rest. But members should think hard before committing public funds to what should be a private business.
The prospect of upgrading the theater’s digital projectors at an estimated total cost of $420,000 is cause for pause. The city owns the Market Arcade building.
The costs don’t just stop with the transition from metal canisters to digital downloads. Michael T. Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place and the theater’s treasurer, estimates that an additional $1.4 million would be needed to install stadium seating; add 3-D projection capabilities; and improve restrooms, the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, the refreshment stand and signs.
And that’s only to keep up with the competition. Drawing people in with amenities such as those being offered at AMC Theaters with reclining seats, reservations and upgraded refreshments is an entirely separate set of expenses.
This is a difficult call that provokes its share of mixed emotions. The Market Arcade has become a cultural icon in Buffalo’s downtown. Those living near enough have enjoyed the ability to walk to the movie theater, while visitors to downtown hotels could enjoy nearby big screen entertainment.
And that is not to mention the educational and eclectic side the Market Arcade offers that makes it special. Bruce Jackson, Market Arcade’s vice chairman with Diane Christian, has for the last 14 years run the popular Buffalo Film Seminars, a weekly University at Buffalo course open to the public. The movie theater is the home of Road Less Traveled, which produces live theater in one of the auditoriums.
But there are long-standing pressures. Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre Inc. oversees the theater. Dipson Theatres is the chain that operates it. But since the theater was built by the city with the help of federal funding and opened in 1987, there have been other operators. A notable list, in fact, whose revenues declined and made continuation unsustainable.
It was a hopeful day when Dipson took over management of the renamed Market Arcade Film & Arts Centre in June 2000, under the volunteer board of Market Film & Arts Center Inc. But business has been tough as the crowds have thinned, even for the biggest blockbusters. Crowds may have always been sparse but the pressure in this digital age when downloads are a click away on most home television sets makes it even harder to sustain.
Subsidizing a movie theater might have made sense back in 1987, but things are on the upswing in Buffalo’s downtown, with the waterfront developing, cars returning to Main Street and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus growing fast. People are moving back downtown.
Government can have an appropriate role in fire protection, garbage collection and policing. But owning a movie house? It is time to allow the market to sort that out.