Kickstarting The Catlow: Online campaign helps 1927 theatre go digital
How sad that a classic movie house built in 1927, complete with storefront, stage and dressing rooms, would need to get a kickstart in 2012. But as we all know too well, the final days of celluloid are looming and for a 706–seat, single-screen auditorium offering $5 tickets and delicious Boloney’s sandwiches, making the transition to digital is daunting, to say the least.
“Rescue the Historic Catlow Theater from Extinction,” Tim O’Connor and his co-owner and fiancée, Roberta Rapata, headlined the July 26, 2012 launch of their campaign on Kickstarter.com. The goal was to find funding for the do-or-die digital deployment at the National Register of Historic Places-listed beauty, designed with a mix of a Tudor and Art Deco styles by the noted Prairie School sculptor and artist Alfonso Iannelli. “Will The Catlow Go Digital or Go Dark?” was the well-worded follow-up question. “Hollywood studios could force a historic Chicagoland movie theater to close! Movie lovers can help save the Catlow.”
By August 3, moviegoers in and from far around Barrington, Illinois, had just done that, with time to spare. “I can’t even describe how surprised we were that we received full funding of the $100,000 we had asked for.” One can still hear the joy and gratitude in Tim’s voice. This author, who had come to know and love The Catlow while working on the book Cinema Treasures—A New Look at Classic Movie Theatres, contacted O’Connor the very next day to send congratulations and to get the scoop for Film Journal International, of course. “This has been quite a week,” he replied via e-mail. “We never expected the outpouring of support that allowed us to reach our goal in around an hour and a half shy of a week! We’re still stunned! Barrington and the surrounding communities really stepped up to the plate and solidified our future!”
A visit to the dentist turned out to be a blessing, as O’Connor first read about Kickstarter in the waiting room. Since launching in April 2009, Kickstarter has facilitated no less than $344 million pledged to projects, with 2.6 million people becoming backers, resulting in 29,000 projects successfully funded. (These and all other numbers mentioned here are as of press time). “That sounds pretty good,” O’Connor thought at that time. “I have been worried about going digital for a while and this might help us, in fact.”
Visiting Kickstarter.com, however, he could not find any category that fit The Catlow’s particular needs, or even its status as a movie theatre. “Plenty of people were doing film and video projects,” he relays, “looking for money for their scripts, etc. And under theatre, funding was all about the stage, writing plays or putting on a production. There was nothing for movie theatres or architecture, even.” That changed when, in late June and early July, several friends of The Catlow emailed O’Connor that the 85-year old Patio Theatre in Park Ridge, Illinois, had started a Kickstarter campaign to go digital.
“I hurried to check it out, and immediately began my research.” O’Connor recalls, giving credit to fellow theatre owner and operator Demetrios Kouvalis for a successful project that, from May 22 to July 22, attracted 804 backers pledging $54,080 of the stated $50,000 goal. “I was actually in the hospital and told Roberta to bring my iPad over right away,” he says with a laugh. “Kickstarter has great information and really good tutorials that show you how to do it. As soon as I got out of the hospital, after two days, I hit the ground running and had our Kickstarter campaign going.”
Establishing reward levels was key, he continues. “You have to give people something that you would like to get yourself,” he declares, citing Kickstarter’s advice. “You create something of value or something that is really fun.” (From this writer’s perspective, it also helps to be a good and entertaining wordsmith, which both O’Connor and Rapata certainly are.) “Roberta came up with the [$5,000] one about taking over the theatre for the night to have your own private party with up to 200 friends, unlimited popcorn and soda included.” He also mentions the “Diamond Studded Reel Award” that, for $2,000, lets anyone be the projectionist for the night “while we still have our 60-year old 35mm Simplex projectors in place. We are also videotaping the momentous occasion for them as a souvenir,” O’Connor promises. And who would not want to take up one of the ten rewards available? After all, “the original projectionist, Ray Jahnke, worked here until he was 94.” (Now that’s an interview opportunity and oral history we sadly missed forever.)
The most popular category is the “Dinner and a Movie Special for Four.” The $100 pledge had 292 backers at press time—in comparison to the second-most popular $20 support of 274 “Friends of The Catlow”—and includes a large popcorn and drink combo, along with “any choice off the Combination or Sandwich menu” at Boloney’s. Further donor recognition comes during the pre-show, on the dedicated lobby plaque and website page, as backers are invited “to our digital premier showing.” The special event is commemorated with the gift of “a line drawing of The Catlow by our partner, Carl Rauchenberger, which we personally sign thanking you for your donation!”
In addition to offering a great deal for “Dinner at the Movies” (check out what ABC TV Chicago had to say about that), this represents resounding support of the concept that O’Connor and Rapata pioneered and one that has helped them maintain a competitive edge. After all, the moviegoing choices have grown from the closest theatre being ten miles away when they started to eight multiplexes with some 117 screens within a ten-mile range today. “When we bought the theatre from Ed Skehan when he retired in 1988,” O’Connor “didn’t know of any other theatre that was serving food, except for nachos maybe.” Having already operated Boloney’s in the storefront for seven years, “we were either the first one or one of the first that allowed people to eat our sandwiches inside the auditorium. It worked out very, very well.” (The Catlow was included in our very first article about “Expanding the Menu” at the movies in July 2005.)
Dinner purists amongst our series’ readers who wouldn’t consider sandwiches as such should be reassured by this review from Irv Leavitt in the Pioneer Press. “Here, they let you walk right into the movie theater and eat it ensconced in your cushy seat. And these are no ordinary sandwiches. These are sandwiches that could choke a horse. I bought one the other day that weighed 24 ounces. It tired me a little just to carry it around.” While Mr. Leavitt took on the load himself, O’Connor and Rapata make sure to always have staff on hand to bring the trays to your seat as well. During the day, the theatre lobby provides additional seating for their hungry customers. “People like to come every week just so that they can eat and watch the movie. It’s their date night,” O’Connor has observed. “Dinner and a movie under one roof, they love it.”
After developing and uploading the pledge menu and related narratives, how did O’Connor go about promoting the campaign? The Catlow has an e-mail list of almost 4,200 recipients that has been actively engaging guests long before Kickstarter kicked in or even existed. “We survey them [as to] what movies they want to see next and let them know on Monday what’s starting on Friday, so that they have time enough to prepare.” Not to mention that he even includes alerts about road closures and construction. “Anything that may help our guests out and make their visit better. It’s all about keeping in touch with them. We try to answer every e-mail too,” he assures. “We have a good contact with our people.”
And all around town, one might add. To get the required video on Kickstarter, O’Connor shot some iPhone footage and “called in a favor with the head of the video department of our high school,” he says. “We have shown their student projects on the big screen many times.” Barrington stores had their popular Sidewalk Days coming up and O’Connor took advantage of the foot traffic. “My niece, Kaeli O’Connor, who is a graphic artist, designed posters for us that we put up around town.” Last but not least, “we were opening The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on that Friday after the Kickstarter launch. We were busy with the perfect crowd and the news kept on spreading like wildfire.”
There was some not-so-good news too that helped alert the public to the impending digital doom. “The business page of our local newspaper had a feature on suburban theatres coping with the transition to digital.” O’Connor says; it mentioned both the capital expenditure and leading role of Classic Cinemas and the death of the Arlington Theatres in Arlington Heights. “Having to close its six screens really drove the point home that if you don’t go digital, you’re dead. After that article ran, everybody was very sympathetic to our plight and wanted to know what we were going to do… You know how they say timing is everything. Everything just clicked and magically fell into place for us—for a change.” O’Connor starts laughing, “That’s the honest truth. Most of the time you think something will work and it doesn’t. This time it did.”
Not surprisingly, Facebook was instrumental in getting it done. Posts on the pages of both The Catlow and O’Connor himself, as well as Boloney’s were widely liked and shared across the community. “We put out the word there, and on Twitter. It took off like crazy.”
In addition to the regular moviegoers who “come here all the time,” clearly providing the base of support, “we had people who used to go to The Catlow but have since moved away, telling us their favorite stories and memories. We received donations and comments from Ireland, England, Australia, Sweden, Denmark… For whatever reason—liking old theatres, classic architecture—people from all over the world wanted to help. It’s like our own chapter of It’s a Wonderful Life happening right here.”
Keeping control of it all is where Kickstarter really kicked in, he opines. “It’s just amazing how everything runs automatically, from alerts and updates to the money collection once it’s funded. The people who came up with Kickstarter are all geniuses,” he adds with audible glee and appreciation. “What a tremendous help for people in our position. A month ago we were still thinking, ‘We’re going to go out of business… If we don’t come up with the money, what are we going to do?’ And now our gracious guests are giving us extra money, asking ‘What else do you need fixed there?’ It’s been phenomenal and amazing.”
On August 16, The Catlow reached $140,000. “Now, beside our main goal of converting to digital projection,” the campaign post updated, “we will be able to replace our decades-old heating system with a new, more efficient system. The old theater struggled to make it through last winter,” Tim and Roberta acknowledge. “So this is a big deal for us!” By August 27, they “already raised enough for digital projection and a new HVAC unit thanks to a generous outpouring of community support,” and went on to ask: “Would you also enjoy new, comfortable seating, improved sound-dampening, redesigned women’s washroom (!!!), freshly painted marquee and a spruced-up façade?” And, indeed, “due to the number of requests we have received to do so,” on Sept. 4, the category of the “Catlow Chairperson” was added ($150 with 13 of 600 possible backers). “Many have suggested that we upgrade the seating, or at least some of it, to provide more comfort. We are listening to you all and here is the newest category.”
Unfortunately, our print deadlines do not allow us to report the final outcome when funding ends on Sept. 24. With a full two weeks to go, 1,224 Catlow friends and patrons had pledged $157,901 to the original $100,000 goal. Make sure to check out the final tally. Whatever the ultimate kick will be, that success surely counts as an outpouring of love for The Catlow Theater. “We know that now,” O’Connor happily laughs. “I told Roberta, ‘I can never ever get crabby again at anyone the whole time that we are here.’”
Special thanks go to the Theatre Historical Society of America (www.historictheatres.org) and its board member, Don Bohatka, who immediately shared the news about his “hometown” theatre via the organization’s Readerboard.
35mm is in the Bag
A creative (and eco-conscious) way of dealing with the demise of film comes courtesy of Julie Lewis in Portland, Oregon: “High-quality COOL handbags made from 35mm Hollywood movie footage (polyester, not celluloid) that are no longer running in theaters.”
Launching her Kickstarter campaign on Jan. 4 to expand the line “to include more women’s designs, and a line for men,” the designer wrote: “I use more recent films (after the late 1980s) because they are 100% polyester and more durable than the older films that were made of acetate or celluloid (which cracked easily and was also flammable). The movies are normally destroyed after their run in the theaters and I get them from the distributors and cut them up (a way of destroying them that does not violate copyright laws) and have them made into handbags and accessories which I design. This keeps the films out of the landfills and creates a potential collector’s item when eventually all theaters convert to digital film.” To get yours, go to www.dejabags.net