Thursday, June 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

The Grand, Blue Mouse leap to digital (whether they like it or not)

Technology is stalking the mouse and the elephant, and it is up to us to save them. The Blue Mouse Theatre and The Grand Cinema, with its elephant logo, are old school Tacoma favorites, down to their homemade, hand-me-down vibe. They, unlike the multiplexes, still show 35mm films on projectors – and that is the problem. Those projectors are about 10 months from obsolescence. Studios already have gone digital, and soon will stop putting their films on film. If independent movie houses do not upgrade to digital, they will have no movies to show. Those digital systems cost about $75,000 each. That is a big bite for The Blue Mouse, with one screen. The bill for The Grand, with four screens and a more complex set-up, will be $344,000. Now both theaters are depending on fans, patrons and different strategies to raise the money to stay in business.

Tacomans have run The Grand and Blue Mouse outside of the corporate realm. That has meant that the non-profit Grand has brought art-house movies and film festivals to town while the privately owned Blue Mouse is thriving as one of the nation’s oldest neighborhood movie houses. John Hamrick opened The Blue Mouse, named for a club in Paris, in 1923 with “The Green Goddess.” It prospered, changed hands, and prospered a little less as it wore out. It was The Bijou when its previous owner was about to give up on it and sell it for any use at all. A consortium, assembled by Proctor merchant Bill Evans, bought, refurbished and reopened it under its original name in 1994. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. That consortium has never taken a penny on their investment, said manager Sue Evans (no relation to Bill), and The Blue Mouse is Tacoma’s only neighborhood theater playing second-run flicks and selling tickets for about half the price as the chains. Every Saturday night it shows “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with performances by The Blue Mouseketeers, Come the holidays, there is the “It’s A Wonderful Life” benefit, with Santa, for the FISH Food Bank.

The Blue Mouse is a Proctor neighborhood tradition that brings folks in from all over town. Sue Evans, who moved up from popcorn server in the movie biz, has managed what she calls “The Mouse” for nearly 18 years with impressive frugality. Her husband, Dave, does maintenance jobs for free. Those bright blue seats? She got them from a corporate theater that went out of business, hauled in volunteers to clean them and saved about $40,000. In 18 years, she said, she has saved $100,000 to invest in a new roof, repairs and an accessible bathroom. There is no way, she said, that she can come up with $75,000 by fall. That is why, when she saw the digital switch coming, she hoped it would slow down. “Most of us knew the change was coming, but most of us didn’t think they’d stop making prints,” she said. Then came the letter from 20th Century Fox. “It said, if you don’t switch, we won’t even license films to you,” she said. “We don’t have a choice.”

Evans opted to raise the $75,000 through Kickstarter, a website that gathers pledges for creative projects. People pledge credit card donations and, if the project reaches its goal by the end of the campaign, those pledges get processed. If the project does not make goal, the pledges are not cashed in. She posted the pitch on the site Nov. 19 and started working the movie crowds and contacts to contribute. By Nov. 27, The Mouse had $26,862 in donations. Evans has sweetened the process with incentives, including free tickets, popcorn and pop, as well as prints of a watercolor of the building. She is optimistic. Over at The Grand, so is manager Philip Cowan.

Built in an old Odd Fellows hall, The Grand opened as a for-profit art house in the 1990s, and failed. In 1997 volunteers raised the money to buy it and run it as a non-profit. Fans can buy memberships, which give them free parking and popcorn and the satisfaction of contributing to the theater. Cowan launched a more traditional campaign focusing on that base. He invited them to special showings of films and started each show with a pitch for donations. The Grand, he said, will have to spend $344,000 to put digital systems into each theater. One will have 3-D, which costs more than the basic $75,000 package. A surprising number of art films, including Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” are coming out in 3-D, he said. Another projection room will retain a functional 33mm projector for vintage films, like those in the Grindhouse series. That will be complicated, and raise costs. “Our hope is to get one-third of our overall goal from grants, and the rest coming from donations,” Cowan said.

It looks good, with about $20,000 in so far. “We have done a mailing to all our members, and donations are coming in,” he said. “We also have a trailer, which we are playing in front of all our movies.” The Grand has built a reserve fund that supports good programs, like film festivals, that do not pay for themselves. “If we have to dip into our reserves a bit to finish out a screen, we could,” Cowan said. “We’d hate to do that.” Still, it is an option that only comes with a history of good management, of listening to the viewers. The Grand and The Blue Mouse operate that way and have become a true gift to Tacoma. It is good to see Tacomans recognizing that, and doing right by them in return. In Tacoma, we can put money down that technology will not kill the mouse and the elephant.