The Last Picture Show

Halfway up Broadway, near the center of New Haven, the York Square
Cinema readies for combat. Strategy requires a business-as-usual
approach, which means that the promotional posters stay on the
front windows and the poster-size movie reviews remain in display
cases by the doors, all below the giant marquee where mismatched
letters announce the week’s features. The reviews and posters
were almost certainly put up by Peter Spodick, who manages the
York Square and who also filed suit this past spring against
the twelve largest movie studios in the country.
Spodick is a busy man. The lawsuit brings more work to a job
that already provided plenty. It has brought a dozen enemies
who more or less comprise the American motion picture industry:
Buena Vista (which includes Disney), Columbia, DreamWorks, mgm,
Lion’s Gate, Miramax, New Line Cinema, Paramount, usa Films,
Sony, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. Spodick claims the
studios have systematically avoided licensing first-run films
in the city of New Haven, forcing residents to travel to neighboring
towns to see new movies. The trial is tentatively set to begin
December 31, 2001, creating a frantic year of preparation in
the meantime.
As he dashes between legal and managerial chores, Spodick is
hard to find. In fact, 15 minutes before theater doors open on
a Thursday night, the only place to catch him is the men’s restroom,
where he is whisking across the tiles, paper towels bunched under
his shoes. "Cleaning guy put too much soap on the floor,"
he says. He circles from stall to door to sink, where he stops
to splash more water on the floor: "Nature’s solvent."

"Don’t be shy," he says, and tosses a mess of towels
my way. A young employee zips out of a stall and smiles as she
grabs more towels. She turns so that now she and Spodick are
circling each other in the middle of the floor, like dance partners.
If anyone brings this up later he’ll just grin and say, "When
stuff needs to get done, you shut the fuck up and you do it."

Peter Spodick’s father, Robert Spodick, opened the Lincoln
Theatre in New Haven with his cousin Lenny Sampson in 1945. Lenny
was fresh back from fighting in Japan and Robert, 26, had just
moved up from New York, where he went to school and managed the
Little Carnegie, a popular foreign film theater next to Carnegie
Hall. Neither man had much money. How were they able to start
their own theater? Peter laughs. He likes this part of the story.
During World War II, troops en route to Japan stayed in Honolulu
before shipping out. The island was flooded with thousands of
bored soldiers, one of whom was Lenny Sampson. One day he approached
the owner of the on-base movie house, which was doing poorly.
Lenny said he could double the owner’s business in exchange for
a piece of the profits. Deal. Lenny telegrammed Robert to send
a reel of Ecstasy, the new Hedy Lamarr movie. "She was a
great big star," Peter says. "Very beautiful."
The movie was indeed a business-doubler because, as every soldier-age
male knew in 1945, Ecstasy has a nude swim scene. Jackpot. Robert,
still in New York, tracked down a reel of the movie and shipped
it to Honolulu, and . . . what? Peter has quit mid-sentence,
walking upstairs to his office in silence.
Afraid he has forgotten to finish the story, I ask, "How
did it do?"
Peter opens his office door to reveal the original promotional
poster for Ecstasy. There are some words along the edges, but
the poster is dominated by a large, simple sketch of a woman
leaning back against a rock. She is beautiful, smiling, and naked.
"They broke the theater doors down," he says. Lenny’s
cut from the theater owner would be the seed money for the Lincoln
Theatre in New Haven.
Lenny and Robert ran the Lincoln successfully until 1966, when
the city informed them that their theater was in the way of an
exit ramp-to-be off Interstate 91, and put the Theatre on 30-day
destruction notice. Building maintenance was tough to justify
when the only certainty in the building’s future was destruction.
The Lincoln spent the next 16 years a month’s notice from death,
finally closing in 1982. But Lenny and Robert still had the York
Square Cinema, opened in 1970 at 6 1 Broadway.
Thirty years later, the York Square-all three screens and 687
seats of it-is the only remaining theater within walking distance
of Yale, where 10,000 students are packed into a few square miles,
and within the city of New Haven, population 130,000. Jackpot.
Or so it would seem. Unless Peter Spodick works a miracle, the
York Square could be out of business by Christmas.

Business has been bad in recent years because major studios
have been increasingly unwilling to allow their films to play
at the only theater in New Haven. It’s hard to say what’s more
absurd: that studios collectively boycott medium-sized cities
with large captive audiences, or that Peter Spodick has decided
to sue them all for it.
Spodick filed Broadway Theatre Corporation v. Buena Vista Pictures,
et al. on April 19, 2000, citing the studios’ refusal to license
films in New Haven as a violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade
Practices Act (CUTPA). "[CUTPA] is a consumer protection
act," Spodick says. "The definition in the law is unfairness
to consumers. How is it that some people get a little more fairness
than others?" He wants a court order to prevent the studios
from denying movies to New Haven. Spodick’s claim hinges on geography:
The accused distributors all agree on the boundaries of a territory
they call "New Haven" that is considerably larger than
the real New Haven. Studios have divided the nation into thousands
of territories, and their "New Haven" combines the
city of New Haven with more than a dozen surrounding towns. In
addition to the York Square, the studios’ "New Haven"
is home to four multiplexes, all owned by Showcase Cinemas, a
national chain. Since its first "New Haven" location
opened in 1967, Showcase has licensed films from distributors
under an "exclusive run" agreement, meaning that no
other theater in "New Haven" can play a film while
it is playing at the Showcase. These exclusive runs draw moviegoers
from New Haven to "New Haven," and can extend for several
months or longer. American Beauty, for example, never came to
our New Haven.
"Before the movie opened, we knew this would be a big one,
maybe the big one," Spodick says of American Beauty, the
1999 DreamWorks blockbuster that grossed over $130 million nationwide.
"It was one of those crossover pictures that was artistically
significant and did tremendous business." The film opened
at one of the "New Haven" Showcase locations in the
suburbs, Spodick says, and played there for nine months, switching
between locations and even leaving the Showcase altogether for
a while, during which Spodick still was not allowed to play the
film. Spodick repeatedly requested the film from DreamWorks but
was refused on the grounds of the exclusive-run contract. Spodick
believed so strongly in American Beauty’s potential that he even
contacted DreamWorks with an offer after the film had come out
on video, nearly a year after the national release. Again the
studio refused. This is not the only movie the York Square has
missed, and DreamWorks is not the only studio that has seemingly
blacklisted the city of New Haven. Eleven others have all decided
to play only in the suburbs despite evidence that the York Square
can be very profitable when allowed to play mainstream films,
raising the question that tortures Spodick: Why?
At the trial next year, the studios’ response will probably amount
to "Why what?" Studios profit directly from the success
of their films, as theater owners must pay a fraction of each
movie’s ticket sales back to the studio. This fraction varies-studios
tend to demand more return for films they expect to succeed,
and especially in the film’s opening weeks, when attendance is
likely to be highest. The fraction shrinks as the film’s run
continues, but can begin quite large, sometimes as high as 70
percent. Because the studios’ income is so dependent on ticket
sales, they are generally free to license films to whomever they
choose.

Until recently, America’s largest film exhibitors have been
engaged in a furious building war. The result is 33 percent more
screens than five years ago, and, for six major exhibitors, bankruptcy.
Industry analysts say that the nation’s 39,000 screens are about
12,000 too many. "Overscreening" has complicated the
movie exhibition business, especially the relationship between
national chains like Carmike Cinemas (the country’s third largest
exhibitor) and small movie houses like the York Square. The building
spree contributed most to overscreening, but smaller, older theaters
will most likely bear the cost of their competitors’ mistake.
Multiplexes, after all, have a lot to offer: digital sound, stadium
seating, and concession stands of occasionally intimidating selection
(go to the Manhattan AMC 25 for chicken quesadillas, the Plainville,
CT, 20-plex for popcorn shrimp). Older theaters’ worn-out chairs
and garbled sound may appeal to nostalgia, but not to Hollywood.
When a new multiplex springs up near a mall and demands exclusive
runs, what are the studios to do? Every town, it seems, now
has an abandoned theater on Main Street and a multiplex ten miles
away. The villain, Spodick explains, is not just one theater
chain, but a juggernaut: National Amusements, a sprawling entity
that contains Viacom, cbs, Paramount, United International, and
Showcase Cinemas. National Amusements has been captained almost
singlehandedly in the last dozen years by a man named Sumner
Redstone.
Redstone’s Showcase Cinemas controls more than 1350 screens across
the eastern half of the country, with high concentrations in
Massachusetts and southern Connecticut. He has New Haven surrounded:
to the southeast, eight screens in Orange; to the southwest,
nine in Milford; to the north, twelve in North Haven. Redstone
has constructed a ring approximately eight miles in radius around
New Haven, drawing to the perimeter customers with personal transportation
but neglecting everyone else; as Spodick often points out, "There
is no bus."
And if this ring continues its "squeeze" on New Haven,
Spodick says, there will be no movie theater here either. Spodick
knows Redstone and his strategies, and fears they will work as
well in New Haven as they did in Hamden, whose local theater
found itself unable to get first-run films. Showcase had screens
in North Haven, and was not interested in neighbors. Showcase
applied the "squeeze," and when the Hamden theater
folded, Showcase bought their lease. The theater later reopened
under Showcase management. Then, "a few years later Schowcase
opens an eight-screener in North Haven, and they close the theater
in Hamden. It gets converted into a giant Blockbuster Video.
The city of Hamden, population 50,000 is officially shit out
of luck. There will never be theaters there. That’s how it works,"
Spodick says. "Fold ’em, take ’em over. Fold ’em, take ’em
over. If Showcase doesn’t do it, some competitor may go in there
and make trouble for them, so they take it over."
Showcase does not build in the suburbs by accident, Spodick says.
"They know when they build these multimillion dollar complexes
who’s going to come to the movies. New Haven has 20,000 people
living on welfare. Showcase doesn’t want these people."
Spodick cites overscreening as one reason why Showcase "cannot
allow downtown theaters access to first-run films," lest
the York Square’s central location begin drawing New Haven residents
who usually venture to the suburbs for new movies. The suburbs
are out of reach, however, for the poor and those without cars,
most of whom will not pay a $25 cab fare on top of an $8.25 ticket
for a first-run movie in North Haven, the nearest Showcase location.
"People who live in New Haven have been disenfranchised,"
Spodick says-to him movies are an urban dweller’s basic right.
"It’s not a matter of money; it’s about the quality of our
shared urban lives. There is no successful downtown anywhere
that does not have first-run movies. We have everything else.
This is an industry that brings people out at night on a mass
basis. Movies are an urgent catalyst for restaurants, downtown
shopping, bookstores that stay open late, coffee shops that are
open all night to accommodate people on the town."
As proof that crowds would follow if first-run movies were to
come, Spodick offers the example of The Blair Witch Project,
a horror film that cost $30,000 to make and grossed $140 million.
Its success surprised just about everyone, including Redstone,
who did not demand an exclusive run and let the York Square have
it. With Yale empty for the summer, Blair Witch still grossed
$6,000 on opening day and $27,000 for the week, and, according
to Spodick, outgrossed most area theaters. Nevertheless, when
a sequel was announced, the studio told Spodick it would never
play in New Haven. "New Haveners responded to Blair Witch,
proved it could make a fortune downtown. That’s why [Redstone]
will not allow us to play it anymore."
Since the York Square opened, perhaps no movie has belonged there
as much as last year’s The Skulls, set at Yale. The Hartford
Courant advised residents to come here just to watch it: "Those
wanting to enjoy The Skulls to the fullest should journey . .
. to the theater closest to the campus of Yale University in
order to tune in to the chorus of jeers and cheers from the sons
of Eli." Redstone let the York Square have The Skulls, but
only because good business sense told him he had to. What better
way to pique national attention than to prevent a movie about
Yale from playing at the only theater on campus? Redstone convinced
Universal Pictures to play it in the suburbs first for a few
weeks anyway, then tossed it to the York Square just as school
was ending. "We would have turned out the biggest gross
in the United States for that movie," Spodick says wistfully.

The twelve Hollywood studios named in the suit all have the
same lawyer. His office, it turns out, is a half mile from the
York Square on the New Haven Green. He and Spodick have known
each other since they were kids: They went to Amity Junior High
School together.
Richard Bowerman works for Tyler Cooper & Alcorn, one of
the city’s top law firms. He represents the studios, the out-of-towners
who in this fiercely local fight are perhaps too easily condemned
simply because they are so big. They may even be ruthless and
greedy, but does this distinguish them from other large corporations,
much less make their actions illegal? Bowerman is resolute: It
is not unlawful for the studios to license their films, which
are copyrighted products, as they wish. The studios "have
a right to license them in any way they deem proper, same as
you would if you made a motion picture or wrote a book."
This challenge to the uniqueness of Spodick’s claim can be expanded.
The York Square’s predicament reflects the widespread phenomenon
of businesses’ flight to the suburbs. Is it so awful that they
might now see their movies there as well?
Yes, Spodick argues, because not everyone can get to the suburbs.
There is bus service to the Showcase-managed Fourplex in Milford,
but the round trip totals 21 miles, a distance described by Spodick
in his legal complaint as "prohibitive." Nobody wants
to ride on the bus for an hour to see a movie, but first-run
movies being available by public transportation further blurs
a complaint that already hinges on a jury’s interpretation of
what "fair" is.
"The York Square does not have the grossing potential of
other houses in the area," Bowerman says. When, at his father’s
request, Peter Spodick became manager of the theater, he replaced
Arnold Gorlick, who had managed the theater for 24 years and
moved to the new Madison Art Cinemas in Madison, ct, 20 minutes
from New Haven. Interestingly, Gorlick’s new theater does better
than the York Square. The Madison quickly became one of the state’s
leading art theaters, playing a variety of films and, according
to Gorlick, existing in harmony-even cooperation-with Showcase.
Spodick bristles at the notion that the Madison could even be
called an art theater, and he has a point: Most art houses don’t
have eight channels of Dolby sr surround sound and sufficiently
elegant architecture to be photographed for the New York Times,
like the Madison. Perhaps Spodick is bitter that the Madison
occupies the niche he seeks, balancing art films with mainstream
movies, or worried because the Madison may be claiming some of
his already paltry business.
Spodick’s old friends have now come forward as his adversaries,
representing forces that could crush him before long. Provided
the York Square survives until the trial, life will become a
lot harder, Spodick admits. "They want to go to trial,"
he says of the studios. "I believe they’ve already committed
half a million dollars to keep movies out of New Haven. If we
go to trial, it’ll become millions." And who will combat
greater Hollywood in the courts?
Peter Spodick, of course. He is also a lawyer-Cleveland State
Law School, class of ’78. He will represent himself against Hollywood
and his junior high classmate, and he will do it while running
the theater almost by himself. He will also have to surmount
considerable obstacles just to reach the trial, as the next 13
months will be filled with battles and surprises, like the court-supported
request Spodick received several days ago from Richard Bowerman.
"He wants everything," Spodick says. "All the
details, statements, play dates, grosses, everything from the
last 1,300 screen weeks." A screen week is the cinematic
equivalent of a kilowatt hour; the York Square, with three screens,
goes through three screen weeks every calendar week. "That
means everything we’ve done in the last seven years," Spodick
says. "Our bookkeeper is going crazy."
There is only one bookkeeper, just as there is only one lawyer,
who is also the manager, just as there is one 81-year-old promoter,
who is also the owner and founder. Robert Spodick still works
a full week. Although he was diagnosed with throat cancer two
years ago-"Too many cigarettes," his son explains-Robert
does most of the advertising, booking, and buying. Peter does
everything else, often working 70-hour weeks during which he
is manager, projectionist, publicist, janitor, and, now, lawyer.
"If I don’t do it, it won’t get done," he says. "If
it rains tonight, I’ll be on the roof clearing leaves out of
the gutter so we don’t have a flood. If I were to get sick for
awhile, forget it. The York Square closes."
When asked if his current situation reminds him of anything he’s
seen in the movies, Spodick answers quickly enough: "James
Stewart . . . It’s A Wonderful Life." In the movie, George
Bailey wants to leave town and live on his own, but his father
dies and George has to take over the struggling family business.
Bailey fights to keep the business alive and resist the evil
Mr. Potter, a rival banker.
Spodick loves the movie, but doesn’t take the parallel too far.
Mr. Potter may have been treacherous and powerful, but as an
enemy, he’s no match for Redstone, who is too large to attack
directly. Instead, Spodick has had to fight him through the studios,
which are smaller and more legally vulnerable. New Haven’s townspeople
appear less than ready to band together and save the theater,
as many of them seem to harbor a belief that the York Square
will never actually close. They don’t understand the many factors
that contribute to a crisis of "imminent failure" for
the only movie theater in a college town. They don’t know Sumner
Redstone. Spodick does, and wants nothing more than to defeat
him for the York Square and the countless small theaters that
did not survive the "squeeze."
Spodick will never give up, but victory is distant at best, and
he is exhausted. "There is a point where you get so tired
you lose track," he says. Money is also an issue. Peter
isn’t paid much, and Robert hasn’t taken a check in years. He
works all week, and does it for free. "And y’know what?"
Peter says, "He’s tired too." But while the real world
generally supplies fewer happy endings than do the movies, there
are hints lately that the city is awakening to the York Square.

Kevin McCloud had not met Peter Spodick when he wrote a series
of letters trying to save the York Square. McCloud, who moved
to New Haven earlier this year, was a frequent theater-goer and
had seen enough to know he wanted it to stick around. So he wrote
three letters to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal
and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. He used strong words and
underlines, urging the Mayor to "Please, please, please
work with the state attorney general" to save the theater.
"For many years, the practice of first distributing movies
through such multiplexes has sapped the life from the cinema
industry downtown," DeStefano wrote in response. "The
Attorney General is considering active participation in securing
the right of the York Square Cinemas’ efforts to receive first-run
movies."
"When I see that letter from the mayor," Spodick says,
"I am a happy boy. The Attorney General cannot take every
case that comes along, but he has the right to enter on an amicus
basis, for harm to consumers, and take the case away [for a state
investigation]." This would bring the prosecutorial power
of the state to Spodick’s case, which could convince the studios
to settle out of court. "That would be a dream come true,"
Spodick says.
Whether the Attorney General takes the case or not, Spodick’s
mission is the same. Under CUTPA, plaintiffs must demonstrate
immediate threat of irreparable harm if the defendant were not
restrained. In this case, Spodick is attempting to restrain the
studios’ ability to keep movies out of downtown New Haven. If
the York Square does not get first-run movies immediately, Spodick
says, New Haven will never get them again. The York will go out
of business and no replacement theater would spring up in its
place. Spodick is equally sure that Showcase would never open
a theater in New Haven, as they have already overbuilt in the
suburbs. "They’re terrified of who else might poach on their
turf. So they build to keep competitors out."

An article in the Texas Monthly lists a dozen stately, beautiful
movie houses that have been, for various lengths of time, dead.
They stand unpurchased and undemolished for two reasons: No unrelated
business would fit snugly into the buildings as they are, and
no one wants to knock them down. When two reporters opened up
the Aztec Theatre in Eagle Pass, TX,"a score of residents
crowded around to beg a quick peek inside or to relate anecdotes
about the Aztec, and several-including a police detective and
the city manager-revealed that they had met their spouses there."
The York Square and the Aztec share an idealistic belief that
people do not want a movie theater that it sized for maximum
efficiency, but one that is beautiful in an intimate and utterly
obsolete sort of way.
"The ghosts are gone," Spodick says. "There is
only one fighter, and it is us."

 

Andrew Cowdery is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.