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TOM HARTON Commentary: Key Cinema steps aside for Godzilla

December 5, 2005

Ron Keedy is more philosophical than bitter as he watches his business model-if not his livelihood-slip away.

Keedy, the owner of Key Cinemas, is converting his 6-year-old artfilm house on South Keystone Avenue into an outlet for secondrun, family-friendly movies. Art films are his passion, but Keedy, 60, is being squeezed out of the business by Landmark Theatres, a national chain of art film cinemas opening Dec. 9 at the Fashion Mall at Keystone at the Crossing.

No one would blame Keedy if he milked this plot for all it's worth. Struggling theater operator is forced out of the business he loves by a wealthy interloper. But Keedy is no George Bailey, Landmark isn't the evil Mr. Potter-and there's no angel coming to Keedy's rescue.

Keedy is resigned to the fate of Key Cinemas, which he recently renamed Key Cinemas Beech Grove in an attempt to cultivate a neighborhood audience for the movies he planned to start showing Dec. 2 for prices ranging from 50 cents to $2.

He'd hoped to compete head to head with Landmark, relying on a loyal clientele and his theater's shabby charm to make a go of it against the posh, seven-screen giant. But Keedy realized one day last month there'd be no feel-good ending when he started to fill in Key's movie calendar for December and January. The first five film companies he spoke to said the movies he was requesting were going to Landmark. Even one that he'd already booked, the documentary "Ballets Russes," was now headed to the north-side complex.

"Hearing no five times in one day is all you need" to know you're going to be out of business, said Keedy, who doesn't blame Landmark for capitalizing on an opportunity or the film companies for wanting to maximize their gross.

Indeed, it's the economics of the movie business that are forcing Keedy into another genre.

A big, mainstream movie, such as "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," gets big play. Warner Bros. Pictures circulated more than 4,000 prints of the movie to cinemas nationwide. But the small, independent filmmakers that supply Keedy's product of choice can't afford to blanket the planet with their labor of love. It costs about $3,000 to make a print of a film's master. Indianapolis has to line up behind bigger cities to get a film with only 15 prints in circulation. And when it finally comes here, the print goes to the theater likely to draw the biggest crowds.

Even bigger-budget art films-"Syriana" and "Brokeback Mountain," for example-see limited distribution compared with the Harry Potters of the world. Films like those have been Keedy's bread and butter, but now they're going to Landmark's new Keystone Art Cinema & Indie Lounge.

The new complex is about 13 miles due north of Keedy's joint, but light years away when it comes to demographics. A July ZIP-code survey found that 75 percent to 80 percent of Keedy's clientele comes from the north side and most of the balance from downtown. So it's no wonder the "mainstream art films," as Keedy calls them, are following the people.

Landmark, with 208 screens in 14 states, prides itself on not shying away from controversial films. Time will tell if that means showing the more obscure fare Key Cinemas was known for. Keedy will still show locally made independent films one night a month and host an annual gay and lesbian film festival, but a host of other films could fall through the cracks if Landmark errs on the conservative side at its Indianapolis location.

Keedy laments the possibility that some films might no longer be available to Indianapolis audiences. He regrets that "film companies are no longer run by filmmakers; they're run by accountants," and he worries that some of his customers, mostly seniors, won't have an easy time negotiating the Fashion Mall traffic or Landmark's second-floor location.

But all isn't lost. Keedy figures if he can collect enough quarters showing second-run movies and peddling ice cream and pizza from his expanded concession stand menu, he'll be able to keep his family of six employees intact. That'll be reward enough, even if all that ice cream means spending more time cleaning the theater at the end of the day.

And staying in business will help him keep his dream alive. If he can find an affordable space to lease downtown that's ADA-compliant and with ceilings at least 24 feet high, he wants to give the art film business another try. For Keedy's loyal customers, a Key Cinemas revival might be one movie remake that doesn't disappoint.



Harton is editor of IBJ. His column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tharton@ibj.com.
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