Forty years ago Max Morey took his first steps inside an independently owned movie theater. It was about the same size as The Crescent Theater in downtown Mobile, which he now owns, and it featured one of Woody Allen’s first films.
“I had been to other movie theaters,” Morey said. “There was a booth with a lady giving tickets. There was a concession thing. That’s been around for 75 years.”
Leaning back in a black leather office chair with his hands locked behind his head, Morey continued to recall his first independent movie theater experience.
“But this theater had an old man who’d take your money for the ticket, and then he’d come over here and he’d give you apples and brownies,” Morey said as he stood up and took a side step across the office that sits above the theater and overlooks the Peanut Shop on Dauphin Street.
Notes from patrons, movie posters and samples of his favorite art line the walls. The British film “Belle” was playing downstairs, but Morey was still in a 1960s single-screen theater.
“And then he’d come over here and he’d give you your juice — it was apple cider,” Morey said, taking another side step. “And then he’d go upstairs and project it. Everything was different about this theater. So my story is, 40 years later, I’m that guy.”
While patrons mill in and out of the Crescent seven days a week to see plot lines play out on the screen, a different story is unfolding in the office upstairs.
Sometimes it’s about getting the right films playing at the theater.
Most multi-screen theaters play movies according to decisions made by a buyer. The buyer negotiates with the studio that produced the film about getting it to play at select theaters. He then calls the shots about which films will be shown in which theaters at what times. Many times the buyer makes decisions on a corporate level and hasn’t visited the theaters.
Of course, that isn’t the case for the independently-owned Crescent.
“We decided since day one we’re going to be the buyer,” Morey said. “Nobody’s going to tell us what to play and when to play it. We’ll make that decision and that’s the best thing we’ve ever done because who knows our patrons better than us?”
And the patrons have responded.
“We kind of tried to keep (the theater) our secret, but it’s really not a secret anymore,” said Donald Dreaper, who frequents the Crescent. “I knew we were going to have to come down here and fight for chairs one day when people found out what was down here.”
Other times the inside story is about making ends meet. Attendance has steadily increased since the Crescent’s opening in 2008, but ticket sales are not sufficient for keeping the theater running.
For the theater to break even, it would need to sell approximately 40 tickets per day (which is about what it’s currently averaging).
Ten percent of revenues from ticket sales go toward sales taxes. From the remainder, about 50 percent goes back to the studio that produced the film. What’s left gets divvied up between rent, salaries and other bills.
This is where the Crescent Theater Film Society, a non-profit entity dedicated to ensuring the theater’s financial stability comes into play, along with the screen ads that roll before each movie.
“You see our theater? That’s a hell of a little atmosphere out there,” Morey said. “It’s a dying thing. A single room with a screen in front of it is a dying thing. We’re hanging on by a thread. We barely make enough money to stay open. If we didn’t have screen ads and help from the Crescent Theater Film Society we’d be closed long ago. There’s almost no profit.”
The screen ads are bought by local businesses. Those businesses act as the Crescent’s sponsors and help pay its bills. The film society concentrates on paying rent.
In the past five years of involvement, CTFS has been able to supply rent payments purely by contributions from donors. This year, however, that’s going to have to change.
“Our rent doubled this year,” said Carol Hunter, CTFS board member. “We had a very, very low rent the first five years to help the theater get established. The owner of the building helped Max open up that theater and so he gave us a very favorable rent for the first five years. Now it’s gone up to market-rate rent. It was hard to sign that lease, but (the building owner) deserves to have a market rent in that building, and what we’re paying is probably still a little bit low.”
The ends that need to meet are now separated by yards instead of inches, but CTFS plans to launch a patrons’ program that will help make up the difference. The program will be limited to 25 patrons (individuals or families) who will donate $750 each. The society is also looking to start a corporate sponsorship program to help bolster the theater’s presence.
“[Rent rising] is a little scary, but we do have a plan and hopefully we’ll be able to get the community to support us,” Hunter said.
So while the story taking place upstairs is always changing, the theme stays the same; doing what needs to be done to maintain a slice of culture for Mobile.
“We want (the Crescent) to always be there,” Hunter said. “It is such an important cultural asset for downtown and gives us the opportunity to have independent films and documentaries that just aren’t on any other theaters. You never see them at the multi-screen cineplexes.”