Nelson Civic Theatre manager and projectionist Jason Asbell is looking forward to screening 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' on the first night its available. There will be a midnight screening on Thursday night and it will continue from Friday

Nabbing first-run film a coup for Nelson Civic Theatre

Midnight screening of Hunger Games sequel coming this Thursday at the Civic Theatre

In the six months since the Civic Theatre unveiled its digital upgrade and began screening popular films four nights per week, staff at the cinema have been trying to pin down local movie viewing habits.

“Nelson doesn’t fit the industry standard. Movies getting big box office numbers in a major centre might flop here,” theatre manager Jason Asbell says.

Is it because the Civic has been showing films a few weeks after their original theatrical release date? Maybe would-be audiences have already gone to Castlegar and seen the films before they come to Nelson.

The Civic will have a chance to test that theory this week, as it shows The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at the same time as every other first-run theatre in the country (or, to use the industry lingo, they’re showing the film “on the break”).

In fact, the local movie house is doing one better and offering a special midnight screening of it on Thursday night/Friday morning.

“It’s an experiment to find out how many people we’re losing by delaying our screenings of new films,” Asbell explains, noting if this week’s numbers show a strong demand for brand new movies, the theatre may also bring in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug for its opening week in December.

But it’s unlikely the Civic will be able to make a habit of showing movies on the break — at least not until the theatre is developed into a three-screen multiplex.

Film distributors restrict how a new film can be shown. If a cinema a wants a film on the break, it’s often required to show the film for a certain number of weeks on a dedicated screen that isn’t showing any other movies. But a few weeks after the release date, those restrictions are relaxed.

The sweet spot for the Civic — where it can get movies that only need to run one week and can be paired with another film on the same screen — seems to be about three weeks. Though, Asbell points out, if a film is doing really well, the distributer might suddenly extend the restrictions.

On weeks that the local theatre has only shown one movie, it’s usually because a distributor decided last minute that they would no longer allow the film to be on a shared screen.

“Every week it’s a juggle. We never know for sure what we’re going to have on the screen Friday until the Monday before,” Asbell says.

Film distributors also want their movies on the screen seven days per week. But the Civic has Thursdays set aside for art house movies, and Mondays and Wednesdays available for community rentals.

In order to get Catching Fire, or any other brand new movie, they have to cancel all the other programming at the theatre.

“We can’t have both — very recent films and film variety — when we only have one screen. We have to choose one or the other… or we have to grow and get more screens,” Asbell says.

It will cost about $2.5 million to turn the Civic into a three-screen multiplex. Fundraising co-ordinator Roger Ley has spent the past several months working on ways to raise the money.

The theatre, as it stands, is operating in the black (though it still relies on some volunteer labour and the building is subsidized by the city). It doesn’t make nearly enough to cover the cost of the renovations out of revenue alone.

“We could keep running the theatre the way we’re running it, but we want to be able to do more in the community,” Ley says. “We’re in a position where remote American businesses (the film distributors) are dictating how this local community enterprise can be run. The only way to be free from that is to have more screens.”

The goal is to turn the Civic into a multiplex in early 2015. The theatre society is currently looking for the architectural firm that will undertake the work.

In the meantime, Asbell will continue to monitor audience numbers to get a sense of what types of movies will bring people out to the theatre. The art house films have been extremely successful, attracting around 140 people each Thursday night. There’s also a huge demand from people wanting to rent out the theatre, particularly since the ski film Into The Mind packed the house for two Monday night screenings last month.

As for new movies, comedies and anything with political content is popular, while turnout for horror films and kids movies have been below expectation.

“If we can’t get the audience out for a certain type of movie, we’re less likely to book similar movies in the future,” Asbell says.

To find out what’s coming to the theatre, check civictheatre.ca.