The good news about Cinema Detroit: The only remaining seven-day-a-week movie theater in Detroit’s core has a much-improved, more conventional new home in a more vibrant neighborhood with better foot traffic.
The bad news: In leaving the aging elementary school where it launched, the owners left behind some expensive technology and have found the range of films they can screen more limited. But more on that in a moment.
Paula and Tim Guthat, held their last screenings in the old theaters in the former Burton Elementary school on Cass Avenue on Sept. 30 and opened in their new location at 4126 Third Avenue on Oct. 9.
(In the interest of disclosure, Paula and I know each other from Twitter circles and have become chummy over the years. I’d like to see them succeed because they’re good people, but also because I’m a film fan and want a theater in the central city.)
The husband-wife duo have a lot on their plate at their independent theater, which is approaching its third year as a permanent business:
- On Friday, Oct. 30, they’re hosting “Scary Cinema,” an 18-hour marathon live-streaming classic horror movies from Turner Classic Movies. Admission is free.
- They’re lining up a full slate of films including “Room,” which is generating Oscar buzz for lead actress Brie Larson, and a documentary about Tower Records.
- They’re working on getting permanent signage out front of the building, the former home of the live-performance space Furniture Factory.
- And they’re promoting a crowdfunding initiative to raise $50,000 to purchase digital decryption equipment needed to offer films from most major and some not-so-major studios. (The all-or-nothing crowdfunding drive ends Nov. 4, so don’t delay if you’re interested.)
An unorthodox theater
So why’d they leave their former home, you ask?
Cinema Detroit, in its first location, epitomized quirky and do-it-yourself. The signage out front was inadequate, making it hard to find. There was no wheelchair access. Set deep inside the musty brick confines of Burton Elementary — the former school previously housed another cinema startup, Burton Theater — customers had to navigate a back-alley entryway and several flights of stairs to use the restrooms.
“For every person that thought that was super cool, which it was, there were probably 10 or 12 people who were like, this is really weird, I’m never coming back here,” Paula said.
The new location, closer to Wayne State University and thriving residential neighborhoods, has better visibility from the street and parking lot and is contained on a single level — meaning no stairs.
Alas, the Burton location offered DCI decryption technology (more on how that works here, if you’re interested).
Filling the void
“At first, most of what we showed over at the other location was what I called ‘artywood,’ which is like an art movie that has major studio backing, like “Grand Budapest Hotel,” or “Dallas Buyers Club,” or “Grandma,” or movies like that that are arthouse friendly but a big studio is backing them and marketing them. So more people know about them and they draw more people,” Paula said.
Then, when the Ren Cen 4 Theater, downtown’s only other movie theater, closed earlier this year, “we got more and more requests for mainstream movies that you would see at the multiplex, because we are the only seven day a week, first-run theater in greater downtown, so people are naturally asking us.”
So for now, the Guthats are showing films in one of the two screening rooms at the new space, with hopes they’ll eventually be able to open up the second.
“If we’re able to make our (fundraising) goal then we’re able to have two projection systems,” Paula said. “The other one will come online as soon as we’re able to afford two.”
The opening of an independent theater has long been a dream for Paula Guthat, who cultivated a love for classic movies at a young age and still finds time to host the popular #TCMParty Twitter chats, which in a recent week saw 1,600-plus users generate almost 8,000 tweets. She and her husband launched Cinema Detroit as a permanent venture in November 2013 after holding a handful of popup screenings in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood.
Paula left a career in social media to devote herself to her labor of love; she now spends her days viewing, booking and promoting films and nights operating the business. Her husband later followed suit and runs the bookkeeping side of things.
The two are the lone employees and work long hours, seven days a week.
Hitting their fundraising goal would mean being able to bring in bigger-budget films with big marketing budgets that make them more recognizable to the general public, Paula said.
“We’re trying to respond to the requests we’re getting, but we need this equipment, and it’s very expensive,” she said. “We do a lot of things to keep our prices affordable. We’ve invested in a new sound system, Dolby surround sound, we’ve put in a new screen, we just need help with this other stuff.”
More information and how to donate is at their Patronicity page.