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Laramie Movie Scope:
More changes at the Wyo

Financial realities in movies

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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Updated April 11, 2002 -- The Wyo Theatre is once again under the management of Trans-Lux, the company that currently owns and operates the Fox Theatre in Laramie. Trans-Lux, as you may recall, closed the Wyo on August 31, 2000 (the last show was "Cecil B. Demented," on September 15 as part of the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival). The Wyo reopened for business on January 26, 2001 under the management of a Wyoming company, Bijou, Inc., partnered with Movie Palaces. Bijou then ceased operating the theater on May 18, 2001. Reportedly, there was conflict between Trans-Lux and Bijou. Trans-Lux has an agreement which limits what films may be shown in the Wyo.

The turbulent history of the Wyo, several closings in recent years and several management changes, is not all that unusual for single-screen theaters in the U.S. (see the finances article below for more on this). Marshall Smith, owner of the Wyo, has bought all the equipment purchased for the Wyo by the Bijou Inc. and Movie Palaces partners. Smith said although Trans-Lux will operate the theater, Smith himself will be doing all the bookings for the Wyo. Smith is continuing the spring and fall film series he initiated in the 1980s, prior to his leasing the Fox and Wyo Theatres to Carmike Cinemas in 1995. He has also added a new summer kids film series, co-sponsored by Laramie parent-teacher organizations.

Smith said the theater will continue to be run the way it was under Bijou with some minor changes (snacks are cheaper and the matinee discount has been discontinued). Smith is booking the same kinds of "mid-run" movies that were shown earlier this year. The changeover was on May 18, 2001. Smith said he continues to be open to suggestions from LFS on the spring and fall film series. The latest suggestion from LFS? "Monsoon Wedding."

Financial Realities

Theater owner Marshall Smith was as shocked as anyone else when Trans-Lux decided to close the Wyo. Smith, as you may recall, used to run a very high quality operation when he ran the theaters here between chain ownerships prior to 1995. Before Smith ran the theaters they were operated by the Commonwealth and Mann chains. Between 1995 and 1999, of course, Carmike, one of the largest theater chains in the U.S. (over 2,800 screens) ran the theaters.

Carmike started out pretty well, and then cut back on staff, which really decreased the quality of service. Film breaks became a common occurrence in recent years, food quality declined and the dual ticket booth at the Fox became one, resulting in lines going out the door into the cold. After some bitter criticism, Carmike did make an attempt to show better movies in Laramie, but did not promote them. Carmike later filed for bankruptcy.

Clearly Trans-Lux can walk the walk. The much-needed improvements in seating and sound quality at the Wyo made it a very nice theater indeed. According to BMercer974@AOL.com Mercer, Trans-Lux invested about $800,000 into the two theatres, including raising the number of total screens in town from five to seven. Unfortunately, a little over a year after throwing some $150,000 into improvements at the Wyo, the company closed it. It seems strange, but multi-plexes are more profitable because of the way they are staffed. In a New York Times article, the failure to close "older, under performing screens," while going into debt building large multi-plexes, were reasons given for why Carmike sank into such poor financial condition. The same article said another large theater chain, Regal Cinemas, Inc., reported a second quarter loss of $29.4 million in 2000.

Financial analyst Christopher Harris was quoted in the Times story as saying dismal financial reports by large theater companies "are further evidence of a meaningful deterioration of the industry's fundamentals ... There are too many screens, and the companies built themselves into a corner." Trans-Lux, however, appears to be financially sound. Trans-Lux has been building multi-plexes of its own in recent years. As far as competition and over-building in Laramie goes, it hasn't happened yet, but there have been rumors of other theater owners being interested in building here.

Mercer said the changes were supposed to help the Wyo Theatre, which was supposed to be a combination "art house" and "big event" house, with big release movies and art films. If attendance falls off, the movie can be shifted over to one of the small screens at the Fox, so there can be more openings at the Wyo. It didn't really work out that way. Sometimes, while the Wyo was running to less than full houses, the Fox was turning people away for popular films in its small auditoriums. Such films could have been switched to the Wyo, but seldom were. Maybe it turned out to be more difficult than expected to move the films from one part of town to another. It's too bad you can't just switch the platters Wyoming style by throwing them in the back of a pickup.

The Wyo closed under Trans-Lux's watch, but it wasn't the first time the Wyo closed. When the LFS looked into the buying the Wyo, the financial realities are tough. Just because the Wyo has opened under a new management, one with experience running single-screen theaters, doesn't mean it will stay open a long time, particularly if competition gets tougher in Laramie. There is no certainty in the situation. It may all come down to popcorn and soda pop. That's right. That's where theater operators make most of their money, so eat, drink, and hope the Wyo stays open.

Trans-Lux has added stadium seating to the Fox as part of an extensive remodel. The Fox is also back to two ticket-sellers again, at least some of the time. One screen is fairly small, with only 85 seats, but the other three auditoriums are larger. One seats 130, the other two 150, not much different than the two screens on the north side of the building in use during the remodeling. All the new auditoriums have stadium seating. The three larger screens have DTS stereo sound systems. The smaller one has four-channel stereo sound.

This makes the Fox a six-plex. I prefer a big screen, but the Fox hasn't had that for a long time, anyway. The old two-screen setup at the Fox was bad, with its long, narrow auditoriums. If you were sitting at the back, it was about like watching television. Stadium seating compresses the viewing area, putting more people closer to the screen, even those at the back. I sat in the back row for the first showing of "Bicentennial Man" at the newly-remodeled Fox. I had a good view of the screen. It didn't seem much smaller than the old screen, but one thing's for sure. The view from the back row is better, and you don't have to look around people's heads.

What this gives Laramie film fans is more choices and more films shown on the national break. Since Trans-Lux also makes LED signs, a lot of those have been installed at the theater, including an outdoor sign to show passers by what's showing. A electronic game room has also been recently added to the Fox.

For more information on Trans-Lux, click on this link to the company's official web page. Trans-Lux has reportedly been in the movie business for about 80 years, as well as being in the sign business.

The best way to keep up with what's going on in the film scene in Laramie is to join the LFS e-mail lists. To do this, visit  http://www.topica.com/lists/film.laramie.wy.us/ and sign up. This is an announcement list only. Notices will include upcoming films, polls, meetings and other LFS announcements. There is no discussion allowed in this list, and only a few list owners are allowed to post messages. We expect an average of less than one announcement per week. We have a separate list for those who want to participate in discussions about LFS or about films in general. The address for the discussion list is http://www.topica.com/lists/discuss.film.laramie.wy.us/. You can also view all of the messages that have already been posted to the list at this location.

Anyone who is interested in helping the Laramie Film Society can click on this link. Here's a link to the official home page of the Laramie Film Society. Or contact me by email. My address is at the bottom of the page.

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Copyright © 1999 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)