Small Pittsburgh theaters are big hits with movie-theme parties
For a long time, movie theaters got by with just showing movies.
But there's a lot of competition these days and lots of new ways to watch movies, from Netflix to Redbox to Blu-ray.
The big multiplex chains responded with bigger and bigger screens, sharper resolution, better and louder sound and 3-D.
Smaller, independent neighborhood theaters have to compete with all of this — and without much money. The answer for these theaters seems to be in catering to people who love movies.
Really love movies.
These are the people who love movies enough to show up early and in costume, to play movie-theme games, compete for movie-theme prizes, listen to movie-theme music, drink beer and generally celebrate the heck out of that particular movie with other like-minded fans.
A few Pittsburgh-area theaters have experimented with this sort of thing.
The Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, which does regular beer samplings and post-movie discussions, and the Parkway Theater in McKees Rocks seem to be set up perfectly for it. But nobody does it quite like the nonprofit Hollywood Theater in Dormont.
In addition to a full, ever-changing lineup of new, offbeat film programming across almost every genre, the theater's owners seem more than willing to party.
In addition to the audience-participation-required 1975 cult film “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” shown bi-weekly at the Hollywood, they recently hosted a “Purple Rain” Movie Party, celebrating Prince's 1984 rock musical with music, dancing, era-appropriate outfits, Prince-theme art and a surprise second feature.
Next up at the Hollywood will be “The Ed Wood Pajama Party” on Aug. 30. It plans to be a tribute to one of the worst filmmakers of all time. Apparently, people who love movies even love really bad movies. His no-budget, science-fiction epic “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1956) and cross-dressing docu-drama “Glen or Glenda” (1953) have become cult classics.
In addition to the films, host Michael Devine — best known as DJ and weird-music expert Zombo — will perform with his “outer-space surf band” Vertigo Go. In addition, he will show outer-space-theme music videos from his collection of 1960s Scopitones. Discounts are available to anyone who shows up in pajamas.
“This idea goes back 25 years or so, to when I lived in Ohio,” Devine says. “There was a struggling theater called the Highland, in Akron. I got together with a bunch of friends, and the theater had copies of ‘Plan 9' and ‘Glen or Glenda?' I just thought, ‘What can you do to make people realize it's more than just a movie?' Live music, a movie and you can dress up. It was a huge success.”
It doesn't take much effort to turn a movie screening into a party.
The Parkway Theater is doing family movie nights featuring board games paired with children's classics like “The Jungle Book” (1967). Owner Aaron Stubna is operating a series of “Spaghetti Westerns” — Italian-made Westerns from the '60s — with actual spaghetti.
“You can't go to Cinemark and see an old-fashioned Western and get a spaghetti meal,” Stubna says.
In November, the Parkway will have a gnocchi-making class followed by a screening of “Big Night” (1996), the movie about two brothers (played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub), attempting to run an Italian restaurant.
“You've just got to get creative if you're trying to pull people back into these little theaters,” says Stubna. “You've got to give them a reason to come back out.”
Offering viewers something extra is what it's all about.
Pretty much everyone who has heard of Ed Wood has already seen his movies, so Hollywood Theater's extra attractions — and gathering of other fans — is important. For something completely different, there's Devine's Scopitones.
“I've been collecting these for years,” Devine says. “This is like a life-changing bit of cinema here. They're basically the first music videos, from the 1960s, made for the Scopitone machine. They were made for France, Italy, some in Vegas — video jukeboxes that used 16mm film that you put money in. It was a little naughty for that time — girls in bikinis and underwear — that nobody would think twice about today.”
Writer-director-producer Joss Whedon has a lot of fans who follow everything he does, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) to “The Avengers” (2012). But it's the short-lived outer-space Western TV series “Firefly” — and its film accompaniment, “Serenity” — that have inspired the greatest devotion.
The group Can't Stop the Serenity has been hosting “Firefly”/“Serenity”-theme parties and screenings for nine years, and their latest was a few weeks ago at the Hollywood Theater.
Starting hours before the movie, they played carnival games, had trivia contests and raffles, and Sean Faust performed original songs about the “Firefly”/“Serenity” universe. The screening of “Serenity” was just a small part of the evening.
Events by Can't Stop the Serenity raise money for Equality Now!, a charity that Whedon publicly supports. The group works for protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world. The Pittsburgh group raised $1,100 at the recent event.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.