Even as the Naro Expanded Cinema prepares to celebrate 35 wonderful years of showing movies on Colley Ave, the future of art houses as well as the standard of 35mm film has never been more uncertain.
In the fall of 1977 a locally owned little business founded by two young upstarts (with a little help from their friends) assumed the lease on the iconic 1930s art deco movie house on Colley Ave. In that era the landscape for mass visual media and its delivering technology was limited. Besides movie theaters there were only three major television networks to choose from, and the Naro held a virtual monopoly on the exhibition of classic movies, foreign films, and art films. There were no videotapes or DVDs to rent, cable TV to hook up to, satellite dishes to install, or movies to download; no YouTube, Hulu, or NetFlix. The seventies and eighties were a golden era for specialty cinema, and the Naro thrived in its heyday with audiences often lined up around the block.
The movie going audiences coming to Colley Ave wanted more than just a good movie and some popcorn – they were hungry for a dining experience. And so Intermission restaurant (the building now leased by Chipotle) and Dan’s Hideaway (now Kelly’s) and Elliot’s (now Red Dog) soon became so crowded that dozens of restaurants opened up around Ghent to feed the throngs driving in from the ‘burbs on the weekends to see a critically acclaimed art film.
Ghent prospered and a strong community grew that tolerated diversity and cultural differences. People walked, and they walked their dogs, and they saw one another and spoke on the streets; connecting in ways not possible when driving around suburban parkways in a large SUV.
Corporate coffee finally discovered Ghent and the success of Starbucks spurred the opening of home-grown coffee houses and coffee culture. The opening of several neighborhood pubs created beer and music culture. And when the city finally allowed outdoor sidewalk cafes, there evolved a vibrant café society. Young people wanted to live here and were willing to pay high rents for the privilege. The commercial and residential landlords of Ghent benefited handsomely.
In contrast to the politics of fear and exclusion embraced by the multitudes throughout much of Hampton Roads, Ghent residents supported liberal causes and candidates. Ghent’s multi-culturalism and progressive values didn’t just happen in a vacuum, but were cultivated through large doses of the liberal arts provided by ODU, the area’s arts and performance groups, the Naro Cinema, Naro Video, and Prince Books. Our grassroots efforts were analyzed, critiqued, and challenged by dedicated columnists who wrote for the now-shuttered Portfolio Weekly, and later for Veer and the e-magazine AltDaily.
In the 21st century, the Naro Cinema and Video have ridden a wave of unprecedented technological change. The worldwide web has radically altered the social habits of modern life. In so doing the web has eaten up books, newspapers, music, photographs, and movies. Media giants such as Blockbuster, Border Books, and Kodak Film are bankrupt, and other businesses large and small will follow.
Let’s look at the challenges facing the Naro Cinema in the near future. We must try to weather the convergence of three seismic technological and social trends:
- The proliferation of digital screens in sizes ranging from wall mounted TVs to portable handheld devices. Movie viewing can now be a very solitary experience as opposed to viewing a movie with an audience on a large movie screen, the very definition of cinema.
- The death of film as the standard for movie projection. For over a century, photochemical film stock has been the vehicle for cinema ever since its inception. An expensive investment in digital projection is now imperative in order to stay in business. 35mm movie prints will be a thing of the past within a year -- as will thousands of small community movie theaters throughout the country that cannot afford the costs of the conversion.
- The graying of the movie-going art house audience. Aging boomers who were raised on art cinema may be the last generation seeking out sub-titled foreign films or character-driven psychological and emotional dramas. These are the grown-up movies that the Naro specializes in and many of these critically acclaimed films are overlooked and under-attended when we showcase them.
Naro Video also has its own immense challenges. Their DVD rental business must compete with the new platforms made available by the giant web, cable, telecom, and satellite companies providing video on demand and movie downloads. Soon the Naro may be the last video store in our area still standing.
The Naro Cinema’s 35th Anniversary event affords us an opportunity not just to reminisce about the past but also to look forward and explore the social and technological forces shaping our future. On Wednesday, September 12th we will present a premiere of the new documentary Side By Side: Can Film Survive Our Digital Future? produced by Keanu Reeves and including the work and testimonies of the best filmmakers working today including David Lynch, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh.
The screening of Side By Side will be followed by a community dialogue: Can Naro Cinema and Naro Video survive our digital future? Please come and participate in this free movie event as we examine the issues now facing art houses, video stores, and their local communities.
Tench Phillips and Thom Vourlas are co-owners of Art Repertory Films (ARF), the company that leases, operates, and maintains the Naro Cinema. Tim Cooper and Linda McGreevy own and operate Naro Video.
Reprinted from Veer Magazine