News Column

Final credits to roll Sunday at Vinegar Hill Theatre

August 1, 2013


Aug. 01--After a 37-year run, the big screen at Charlottesville's Vinegar Hill Theatre is slated to go dark for good Sunday night.

In a Wednesday announcement, theater owners and management cited stiff competition from large corporate multiplex theaters and the rise in digital media streaming services that deliver entertainment straight to the living rooms and hands of viewers.

"It was a really tough decision, but it's really our only option at the moment," said James Ford, Vinegar Hill's manager.

Opened in 1976, Vinegar Hill found its niche showing independent and foreign films, along with first-run movies. The theater also has been a regular venue for the Virginia Film Festival.

In 1999, the theater showed "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin," a 1970s-era pornographic film. The movie was shown for laughs rather than its lascivious value, the management said at the time.

"We believe that Vinegar Hill has always brought something unique to Charlottesville, a distinct character and dedication to the community and to cinema, which cannot be replicated or replaced by a big-business chain," Vinegar Hill's leadership said in a statement.

But with "overwhelming competition" and no support from distributors, "we find that we are not able to continue any further," the statement said.

Vinegar Hill seats about 220 and employs three people, including Ford. The theater recently converted to digital projection technology, but Ford said that alone didn't solve the issue of first-run film availability, since the top rated flicks usually go to the largest theaters.

In the mid-1990s, Regal opened a six-screen cinema a couple of blocks away on the Downtown Mall. Last year, the Tennessee-based company opened the Regal Stadium 14 at Stonefield. The complex, which also screens IMAX movies, has a capacity of about 2,800.

Last year, the Carmike 6 in Albemarle County shifted its format to $1.50 second-run films.

Farther down Market Street, the Bantam Theater opened in January. The locally owned operation also shows independent films.

"We are saddened to learn about the closing of the Vinegar Hill Theatre; it is never good news when a locally owned business, especially one with such a long history in our community, has to close its doors," Kurt Burkhart, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, said in an email.

Vinegar Hill's challenges are not unique, said Patrick Corcoran, a spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

"Multiplexing has become a competitive advantage," said Corcoran. "Particularly for first-run films, that is kind of a more competitive way to do business."

To stay afloat, Corcoran said single-screen theaters like Vinegar Hill have to switch out films more rapidly and be very responsive to customers wanting to see a variety of flicks.

Although Vinegar Hill has no plans to reopen, "There are still some very healthy single screen theaters across the country," said Corcoran. "It really depends on the market and what kind of civic support that's coming back."

The Camino restaurant, which also occupied the theater building on West Market Street, closed earlier this month.

"We're hoping to go out on a high note. ... There's no special event or anything. We just want to thank everyone for their support," Ford said.

Vinegar Hill will show "Much Ado About Nothing" at 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday with additional shows at 2 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. "Frances Ha" will play at 9:20 each night.

Throughout the weekend, Ford said Vinegar Hill will sell its remaining T-shirts, mugs and tote bags for $5 each, along with a selection of movie posters from the past decade.


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