Prospects for the success of the new downtown cinema are probably much better than anyone may have imagined when the concept was brought up and bandied around the community several years ago. The grand opening was a stirring moment this past Monday, and lines formed at the ticket windows Tuesday for the first round of matinees were impressive, even with the free tickets that were temporarily being handed out to give people a first-hand look at the place and its offerings.
The initial positive response may not say much for the cinema's long-term outlook, but the signs are good when you look at the changes in the movie industry and the public's hunger for big-screen film-viewing opportunities.
Some still seem skeptical about the market for a movie theater downtown, considering that the whole cinema industry appeared decisively to move to the suburbs in the 1970s. Much of that shift came as a result of changes in show business, which front-loaded the take for the studios in such a way that local cinemas get very little profit except on movies that can stick around for a whileâ"usually possible only when they're showing with new releases on other screens under the same roof.
Thus, the old business model observed by the original Riviera and the Tennesseeâ"which might show a brand-new movie to enormous crowds of about 2,000, who squeezed in to see one of a limited number of copies of Casablanca or Singin' In the Rain during a three-day run in Knoxvilleâ"no longer made any sense.
So downtown's backslide wasn't the only or necessarily even the main reason that downtown movie theaters closed. Almost all old, single-screen theaters in the nation closed. The Tennessee and Riviera closed in the '70s, but then, so did the Fox Theater on Kingston Pike near West Hills, followed by the Capri on Kingston Pike and the original West Town cinemas. Some of them closed after limited success with twinningâ"opening two screens within the original buildings, an option that didn't seem advisable for the ornate interior of the Tennessee. The Riviera was torn down with little fanfare in the 1980s.
In its resurrection as a multi-screen movie house, Regal's Riviera Stadium 8 has some distinct advantages.
It is the only multi-screen cinema within five miles of the biggest university in the region, to begin with, and is central to a burgeoning arc of gentrified neighborhoods dominated by young and relatively affluent adults. It's also the closest cinema for many North and East Knoxvillians, as well as for people who live as far west as Sequoyah Hills. And it's the closest theater for the entirety of South Knoxville, from Island Home to Seymour.
The State Street Garage offers free parking for the new Riviera, a thoroughly modern facility in the heart of a Gay Street â“theater district,â” including the majestically rejuvenated Tennessee and the Bijou. The availability of dining opportunities along Gay and on Market Square enhances the district for movie patrons, and the resumption of rousing retail on Gay by the Mast General Store doesn't hurt a bit. The yet-to-be announced development in the old S&W, the beloved edifice adjacent to the Riviera, will only add to its appeal.
The threat to today's movie houses is seen in the popularity of instant releases of films on DVDs and the growth of movie downloads from the Internet. The film industry, however, is aware of the public's desire for the big-screen experience, and it is dependent to a great extent on the theaters' marketing advantages within their communities.
Remember, it wasn't television that killed the classic motion picture venues of the past, it was the way the movie industry went to make its money. That profit motive is wrapped up today, and for the foreseeable future, in the multi-screen theaters that dot the landscape of every large- to mid-sized American community, often in real estate chosen more for its cheapness, on the outskirts of a community, than for its convenience to the populace.
Knoxville has wanted this downtown theater for a good while. The city made its commitment, erecting the building. Now it has a fine example of a modern movie palace in the midst of an ongoing downtown revival.
We don't think that the Regal Corp., the nation's largest purveyor of movies to the big-screen market, needs to count on good fortune falling from the sky, but to those who had faith in the viability of a 21st century cinema in downtown Knoxville, we say this: We wish you many years of success. You deserve it.
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