Disney doesn’t care about Jefferson
Three weeks ago, I sat at the Sierra Community Theatre with a few fellow dads patiently awaiting the appearance of those immortal words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...”
It’s still hard to say who was more excited to be seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on opening night in our own town — the dads or our sons, a couple of whom were clad in Jedi costumes. (And no Jedi costume is complete without a plastic lightsaber dangling from the belt; my son’s dilemma that evening was deciding which of his lightsabers to bring: blue, green or red. #firstworldgeekproblems)
We had all arrived with more than enough time to spare, sort of the fanboy equivalent of tailgating.
The conversation in the theater eventually turned to the news that broke earlier that day of Disney’s intention to buy 20th Century Fox (er, 21st Century Fox) for $52.4 billion, an amount about double the GDP of Namibia.
“Wow,” someone quipped, “that’s a lot of money for Wolverine.”
Fox still has the film rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four comic book characters — properties that Disney clearly wouldn’t mind having for its lucrative “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (of which it bought the keys to in 2009, when it snatched up Marvel Entertainment for a cool $4 billion).
Of course, the potential Fox deal gives Disney access to so much more than just the X-Men. It doesn’t, however, include Fox News, which is probably fine with Disney: Sean Hannity would just be one mutant too many.
But as we sat there in the Sierra, waiting on the third “Star Wars” movie in as many years since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion, my thought was of an oft-repeated line of dialogue in just about every “Star Wars” movie since 1977: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Disney’s $52.4 billion business move is so massive, so global in scope, that it would seem to be taking place in some “galaxy far, far away,” with seemingly few implications for those of us right here in lil’ ol’ Jefferson, Iowa.
The truth is, if this deal goes though, for as long as the Sierra has just one screen, movies are going to become harder to come by, fewer in number and with more demands than ever on the community-owned theater.
Back in college, I worked as music director of the campus radio station, and I also booked films as president of the student activities council, so I enjoy commiserating with Sierra manager Dustin Gustoff about working with (or trying to work with) entertainment companies.
And as a former entertainment reporter at a smaller daily newspaper, I also frequently found myself fighting with people in New York or Hollywood to get something as insignificant as a 15-minute phone interview with an actor or a musician. (God help you if your finished story isn’t a puff piece; ask me sometime about the running feud I once had with “Grey’s Anatomy” star Justin Chambers and his PR flack.)
I contend that Gustoff has one of the hardest jobs in Jefferson that doesn’t involve surgery or math.
Few movies arrive in Jefferson without a fight behind the scenes, and every deal is weighted in a studio’s favor.
Disney, in particular, doesn’t care that we have just one screen in Jefferson. They don’t give two rips that the community banded together in 2012 to keep the theater open, and that volunteers take turns serving pop and popcorn.
The company that gave the world “Cinderella” is unmotivated by feel-good, Cinderella stories.
It’s not their fault we don’t have 19 additional screens like the theater at Jordan Creek. And what we do with pop and popcorn is our concern.
But for the privilege of opening “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in December, Disney forced the Sierra to take it for four weeks, quite possibly the longest all-time engagement for a movie locally.
In a market like Jefferson, even two weeks can sometimes stretch audiences thin.
And, yet, “The Last Jedi” will be here through Jan. 11.
At a 20-screen megaplex like at Jordan Creek, Cinemark (the nation’s third-largest theater circuit) can ride out those four weeks with relative ease because it has so many screens running other pictures.
Had Gustoff not consented to showing “The Last Jedi” for four weeks, Disney may have decided to not give the Sierra the year’s biggest movie at all.
Disney was always big, but then it got bigger. Now it could soon be the biggest entertainment studio ever on the face of planet Earth.
If you think their demands are going to ease up with that $52.4 billion acquisition of Fox, I have a castle in Orlando to sell you.
This past fall, Disney made news when it barred film critics from The Los Angeles Times from advance press screenings of its movies following an investigation by the newspaper into the company’s business dealings in Southern California.
Closer to home, in the five years since our theater became a community-operated nonprofit, Disney has already tightened its grip on the Sierra’s throat.
As a nonprofit, the Sierra holds Classics Week annually to raise money, much like IPTV holds a spring pledge drive. Classics Week 2017 raised money for a new popcorn popper.
Disney has already chided Gustoff about showing older Disney films.
On special occasions in the recent past, the Sierra has shown “Dumbo” and “Cars,” but through a loophole, because Disney doesn’t actually distribute its vast library of older material (the older films are booked through a St. Louis-based company, Swank Motion Pictures).
In what surely has to be one of the most surreal confrontations in Greene County history, Disney caught wind of those special showings and sternly warned Gustoff that if he ever devoted precious screen time again to an older Disney film, the Sierra would never get to premiere a new movie.
In short: Disney says that by showing an older Disney movie, you’re screwing yourself out of all future Disney movies.
So go ahead, punk — you show something as dumb as “The Shaggy D.A.” during Classics Week and you can kiss “Avengers: Infinity War” goodbye.
So what’s the solution?
Well, since we’ve been dreaming big in Greene County these past few months with the Vision 2020 planning process, allow me to add a Sierra expansion to the wish list. (We’ll just slide it in there between 3D-printed houses in Paton and an artist colony in downtown Grand Junction.)
If the Sierra could find a way to add two more screens, it would also help to stop the flow of people out of town to see movies we either can’t get fast enough in Jefferson or at all.
Right now, the Sierra seems stuck in blockbuster limbo because, in all likelihood, the studios’ demands make it difficult to sneak in the occasional quiet Oscar contender between their crowd-pleasing behemoths.
Extra screens would enable the Sierra to play a wider variety of movies. Imagine a world where you could walk up and choose between “The Last Jedi,” “Coco” or “The Shape of Water” without having to leave town.
The future of cinema in Jefferson may just be found in Harlan.
The family-owned Harlan Theatre managed to find a way to get four screens up and running, and yet remain downtown.
Like the theater here, the theater there was originally built in the 1880s as an opera house. (Head’s Opera House was here, and Long’s Opera House was there.)
It was the larger of the two theaters in Harlan, just as the Sierra (formerly called the Iowa Theatre) was bigger than the Howard Theatre down the street.
The Harlan Theatre initially expanded in the 1990s when they acquired the adjacent vacant building.
This is all little more than a pipe dream at this point, a fantasy of a few local movie buffs. And, yes, it would cost beaucoup bucks to pull off.
But guess what sits right next to a building that has been vacant for as long as I can remember?
Yup. The Sierra Community Theatre.