On January 9, the L.A.-based ArcLight Cinemas announced its long-rumored 14-screen multiplex near Clybourn Avenue and Halsted Street was a go; the complex is slated to open next year. On January 18, the Harper Theater in Hyde Park reopened, following a three-year revamp that gutted the interior and added stadium seating for four new screens. The venue is showing movies for the first time since 2002.
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Within the last year, the Logan Theatre reopened with a bar and new seats. The Patio Theater in Portage Park (which returned in 2011 after a decade-long closure) installed digital projection. And the ShowPlace ICON, which debuted in 2009, is the only venue in town outfitted with 64-channel surround sound.
You might think the moviegoing business in Chicago is booming, but it’s more like a rebound. Since the late ’90s, Chicago lost the McClurg Court, the Esquire, the 900 N Michigan, the Fine Arts and the Village Theatre, among others. Piper’s Alley bit the dust in 2011. Only three downtown venues show first-run, mainstream releases. That’s pretty shoddy for a city that, according to an ArcLight spokesman, constitutes the country’s third-largest moviegoing market.
Movie deserts create opportunity. The University of Chicago, which owns Harper Theater’s building, “wanted a theater near it to try and invigorate the community,” says Tony Fox, who operates the theater along with the New 400 in Rogers Park. On the South Side, he notes, “There’s a dearth of entertainment locations.” The implications go beyond films: When the I.C.E. Chatham on 87th briefly shuttered last year over a reported business dispute, residents were concerned. The theater, they noted, kept kids off the streets.
Geographically, ArcLight could rope in an audience that frequented the late, lamented Piper’s Alley. The theater spikes the luxe experience of ICON with a shot of Landmark-like art-house programming. Even with digital cinema now the norm, the venue will have two or three 35mm projectors for retrospectives, says Gretchen McCourt, executive vice president of programming.
The premium theater plans to charge admission at roughly 20 percent more than the average Chicago ticket price; that’s standard for ArcLight’s California theaters but also perhaps a sign of confidence in moviegoing attendance, which until recently had been declining. (In a reversal of that trend, 2012’s national moviegoing audience was up by 5.6 percent, according to The New York Times.) Fox estimates his grosses have gone up 25 to 30 percent each year since refurbishing the New 400 in 2009. Demetri Kouvalis, who owns the Patio, says it’s too early for him to deliver a prognosis. He’s still paying off his digital projector—more expensive to operate than 35mm and an impediment to new theaters opening—and the venue’s new air conditioner. He cites the city amusement tax as one reason for theater flight, saying that operating an analogous space in the suburbs is cheaper.
It’s tempting to speculate about future growth. Last spring, I spoke with Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, who had just announced that his much-loved, Austin, Texas–based watch-and-eat franchise would expand to New York. He told me there was “parlor talk” of a Chicago location. (There’s no news, he e-mailed last week, but “we are still in the hunt.”) Meanwhile, the never-used multiplex in the Loop’s Block 37 complex shows no signs of opening.
Rebound or no, the potential energy for moviegoing is there. “We’re still open,” Kouvalis says, “and I don’t see us closing anytime soon.”