Rise of the cinema: Midtown growing with improvements on the horizon
Recent investments in the Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg are paying dividends — and more changes could be coming to the theater in 2019.
Officials for the locally owned art-house cinema — which specializes in showing foreign and smaller-release films — say they are projecting to seat about 56,000 people this year. That would be a 17 percent increase over last year and up more than 40 percent from 2016.
Stuart Landon, director of community engagement, points to 2013 as a bellwether for the theater’s recent success. That was when he and director of operations Adam Porter were hired to co-manage the small three-screen cinema, as well as the year that owners John Tierney and Matt Tunnell spent $250,000 to convert the projection system to digital in a bid to stay competitive with large movie-theater chains.
“That was a big turning-point year,” said Landon. “As a company, we also redirected our energy toward our membership program.”
The program charges an annual membership fee of $50 for an individual and $75 for a couple and has attracted about 3,000 members.
Members pay $5 for movie tickets for first-run films and also get other cinema discounts including special event passes. Other patrons pay $9.50 per person and $8.50 for matinees.
Landon believes the membership program has been a key ingredient in the cinema’s success. Of course, he added, the unique films and special events that the Midtown Cinema brings in — including summer outdoor movies, film festivals and movie marathons — remain the real draw for patrons.
“Even though we’re living in a world of Netflix, I fully believe people are looking for communal experiences, and experiences period,” Landon said.
Indeed, the Midtown Cinema offers a variety of experiences, such as a monthly improv show, called Down in Front, as well as $3 movies for Third in the Burg, held the third Friday of each month, when city businesses open their doors in the evening.
Tierney hopes to make the experience even better at the Midtown Cinema. The owners have hired an architect to look at lobby and façade improvements that could make the space more inviting.
“It’s such a quaint space and so welcoming,” he said. “But it needs a little refresh.”
Other changes could include new seating, said Tierney, who hopes to tackle renovations over the next 12 to 18 months so as not to disrupt cinema operations.
The programming at the Midtown Cinema, which also includes classic films and seasonal favorites, attracts people from across the region – and of all ages.
Anne Chappelka, 85, and husband, Roger, are longtime members and try to see something at least once a week.
The couple moved from Perry County into Midtown Harrisburg about two years ago to be closer to the cinema and other places they like to frequent in the capital city.
“Harrisburg is just a happening place these days,” Anne Chappelka said. “The theater was the first part.”
The rise of places like Zeroday Brewing, which is in the cinema building, and the Millworks also has helped attract more people to Midtown over the last few years. In addition, the historic Broad Street Market has come to life again after struggling a few years ago to stay open. The market is now full of vendors.
Tierney and Landon believe that surge of activity in Midtown has helped the cinema’s attendance grow. The facility has been operating in the black for about two or three years.
But the cinema still faces challenges, including competition from large multiplexes that can show more films throughout the year. The cinema has to be proactive in trying to get independent films that might be played only on select screens across the country.
Indeed, Midtown will be one of a few theaters nationally to show the critically acclaimed film “Roma” ahead of its streaming release on Netflix.
On the other hand, the growth of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon pose a challenge to cinema attendance, said Abby Tierney, John’s wife.
“We have to be unique,” she said. “We have to capitalize on community experiences.”
Hoping to lure in new members, particularly during the post-Oscars season, the cinema is experimenting with a new red carpet membership plan. The plan costs $500 for the year but members won’t need to pay for tickets to films. They also will get a ticket to the cinema’s Oscar party in February.
“It’s about convenience,” Landon said. “We want it to be a fun and easy experience.”
Officials have also talked about the idea of a monthly membership fee and other membership models as a way to boost memberships.
Another focus for 2019 will be adding events and special screenings. A Marvel movie marathon is in the works as is a new film festival with the Sankofa African American Theatre Company in Harrisburg.
“We’re not the multiplex with the blockbuster summer stuff,” John Tierney said. “We have to be looking more for other events.”