Sacramento’s IMAX and no Dark Knight

Can anyone save K Street? If only Batman would come.

No joke: Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX doesn’t show first-run films like <i>The Dark Knight</i>. That’s revenue the IMAX needs to break even, and foot traffic K Street needs to thrive.

No joke: Sacramento’s Esquire IMAX doesn’t show first-run films like The Dark Knight. That’s revenue the IMAX needs to break even, and foot traffic K Street needs to thrive.

Unless you live in a cave, a bat cave perhaps, you know by now that movie fans can’t get enough of the weirdly bleak Dark Knight. In fact, in its opening week, the latest Batman installment earned $240 million. And thanks to director Christopher Nolan’s decision to shoot many of the film scenes with large-format IMAX cameras, the movie gave an unexpected boost to the IMAX Corporation and IMAX theaters around the country.

“We broke virtually every record that there ever was in IMAX,” crowed Richard Gelfond, president of IMAX, during an interview on the Fox Business channel. In San Francisco, the IMAX at the Metreon was sold out for nearly a week. IMAX theaters in Fresno, Calif.; Fitchburg, Wis.; and Sandy, Utah; cashed in on the Dark Knight craze. Even in Guyaquil, Ecuador, they went loco for El Caballero de la Noche on IMAX.

“The only thing limiting our ability to do more was the fact that we ran out of seats,” Gelfond added. “We had shows going at 3 a.m., 6 a.m., pretty much everywhere in the United States.”

Pretty much everywhere, except Sacramento.

Here the Esquire IMAX Theatre on K Street was showing Kung Fu Panda. A fine film, sure, but old news in terms of modern movie marketing.

Of course you could see The Dark Knight in a regular Sacramento movie theater, and many of you did. At the Century Theatre in Downtown Plaza, attendance for The Dark Knight was running about double that of an average opening week.

But if you wanted to experience Batman on the really big screen, you had to go to the Bay Area or to Fresno. The made-for-IMAX film wasn’t playing in the Sacramento IMAX theater.

In fact, with few exceptions, the local IMAX doesn’t play any first-run movies. Though such films are commonly shown at IMAX theaters in other cities, in Sacramento, the Esquire only gets its Hollywood movies after Downtown Plaza is done with them.

The Dark Knight will come to the Esquire starting August 29, but only after the Century Theatre at Downtown Plaza has made its money. And in an era when mainstream movies make a quarter to half of all of their box-office revenue in the opening week, those first couple of days are critical.

“Yeah, it would have made our year,” said Doug Link, manager of the Esquire IMAX.

That’s a missed opportunity for Link, and unfortunate for local movie buffs who want their Heath Ledger way, way larger than life. But it’s bad news for the city of Sacramento as well—which has invested millions of dollars in the Esquire IMAX, as part of its K Street redevelopment strategy—and now finds that investment threatened by the peculiarities of the local movie market.

The city gave $6 million to developer David Taylor to build the 450-seat theater back in 1998. But the attendance at the theater only reached about a third of what had been promised. In 2004, Taylor sold the building to another group of developers, the Tsakapoulos family, and soon the IMAX was faced with a steep rent increase, along with lackluster sales.

In 2006, hoping to protect its initial investment, the city agreed to give the IMAX up to $75,000 to meet its new lease payment. The agreement also specified that the city would kick in additional money as needed in the subsequent years. The bill to the city for 2006 wound up being only $67,069, based on the Esquire’s total receipts that year. Another payment for 2007 is pending, according to Leslie Fritzsche, the city’s downtown development manager.

Link didn’t want to talk to SN&R about attendance, or about the city’s subsidy, or about the connection between the theater’s financial health and its ability to show first-run films.

“I’m not real comfortable talking to you about this. The best thing to do is to contact Warner Brothers. They are the ones who decide who gets the film and who doesn’t,” Link explained.

According to the IMAX Corporation, The Dark Knight is playing at 94 of the 150 IMAX theaters in the United States. The majority of the theaters not playing The Dark Knight right now are theaters that are in educational institutions, museums and science centers—such as the New England Aquarium and the National Air and Space Museum in D.C.

Then there are those that simply fall through the cracks, owing to the vagaries of the local movie distribution game—like our own Esquire.

“Warner Brothers, in their best business judgment, decided to avail it to IMAX in August,” said Jackson Myers, at IMAX corporate headquarters in Toronto. “I don’t want to pass the buck, but I don’t know why the Esquire doesn’t get a first-run film and the theater in Fresno does,” he added.

So SN&R called Warner Brothers, to ask about the local distribution arrangements. But multiple calls and voice mails to multiple Warner Brothers representatives produced no new information by press time.

Sid Garcia-Heberger, who manages the Crest Theatre, says it’s not unusual for a distributor to pick and choose among close neighbors. “It wouldn’t make sense for a company to put a film at the Tower and the Crest at the same time. That would be siphoning off your audience.”

But when local government, and redevelopment money, are involved, those private business deals—between film distributors and film exhibitors—can have public impacts.

“Do I think it’s disappointing? You bet I do,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Sacramento Downtown Partnership, which has been a big booster for more movie screens downtown. “It would be great to be able to show some first-run movies down there.”

Ault was clear that he thinks the IMAX is a major asset for K Street. “Doug is one of our best downtown merchants we have and has been extremely creative in the way he has managed and marketed the IMAX.”

And despite a wobbly first decade, Ault said the theater has been doing well with some mainstream movies, such as Kung Fu Panda. But like The Dark Knight, IMAX only got to show that film several weeks after its big opening weekend. “Does it really work to tell the kids, ‘Just wait six weeks’? I don’t know.”

Given the city’s investment in IMAX, SN&R wondered what, if anything, the city could do about the Esquire’s apparent economic bind.

“We don’t have any say in what movies they show,” said Fritzsche. But what if, SN&R asked, somebody from the city made a couple of phone calls to the distributors? “You raise a good point,” Fritzsche replied. “We really haven’t asserted ourselves on that point.”

For many years, the city’s redevelopment strategy for K Street was strongly focused on more movie screens.

Ironically, K Street used to be a thriving cinema district. In the 1940s, it boasted about 28 movie screens in several different theaters. But by the 1980s, most of the downtown theaters had closed. Since then, the city has tried several times to recapture the golden age of movies on K Street, starting with the IMAX.

In the late 1990s, the city had a tentative deal with AMC Theatres to bring more screens to K Street. But AMC backed out after deciding the project wouldn’t be able to compete with suburban theater complexes.

And in 2003, the city’s Economic Development Department pushed a proposal by Century Theatres to open a CinéArts theater in the old Woolworth’s building on K Street. But that plan was nixed by worries that the new project would benefit from city money while hurting independent film venues like the Crest and the Tower Theatre on Broadway.

Just like those proposals, trying to make IMAX work on K Street is trickier than it first appears. And the studios’ sweet deal with Downtown Plaza isn’t helping.

“I just don’t know about the internal politics of film distribution. I don’t know if it’s a good old boys network or what,” Ault said. “But I wish there was some way we could loosen that up.”

To loosen it up, someone would have to try and convince the film distributors to help out. If the studios won’t return SN&R’s calls, perhaps they’d be more receptive toward the city’s economic-development staff, or an elected official or two. It couldn’t hurt, Ault said. Best-case scenario, IMAX gets the films it needs to pay the bills, and K Street gets a little livelier.

“It could drive some real traffic to the IMAX and further strengthen that asset and bring a lot more people to that end of town.” Ault said.