The Oscars will hit the air Sunday night, but to southwest Kansans, many titles taking home statues may still feel completely foreign.

By the nature of the business and what audiences have supported in the past, several of the movies nominated for top awards didn’t play in most of southwest Kansas this year.

Amarillo, Texas, has five movie theaters, Wichita seven. Denver and Kansas City hit double digits within city limits and hover around 20 when including suburbs. In southwest Kansas’ 34 counties, there are 12 — Garden City, Dodge City and Liberal’s multiplexes, Dodge City’s South Drive-In and eight one-screen theaters.

That might mean limited access to a theater for some, but for everyone in the region, it means limited access to certain movies.

Large and smaller regional theaters alike play mostly blockbusters, and that bodes well for a year with the highest-grossing crop of best picture nominees since 2010. Of the eight nominees, the three that did best at the box office — “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born” — played in all but one regional theater, and one more, “Green Book,” came to just Garden City.

But Oscar nominees like “The Favourite,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Cold War” to popular documentaries like “Will You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers” to mainstream movies like “Love, Simon” or “The Hate U Give,” for the most part, did not break through.

But, as area theater owners and managers said, it’s not for lack of trying, and it’s not all the theaters are about.


Bringing films in

Linda Velasquez’s parents moved her family to Ulysses to buy The Movies, a one-screen movie theater built in 1948, when she was 5, and she and her sisters grew up working in the family business. Now she’s the owner and the theater itself is part community staple, part mini-museum to her family, the Dudleys.

Like many small-town, one-screen theaters, The Movies plays recent movies several weeks after their release dates for one or two weekends before moving to something else.

Historical theaters aren’t uncommon in the area. The Star Theater in Tribune, a community theater staffed by a massive list of rotating volunteers, dates back to the mid-20th century and the Northrup Theatre in Syracuse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, back to 1930. It was once the region’s largest talking movie theater, and generations still stop by to reminisce about first dates or old jobs at the building, said Krista Norton, Northrup manager.

They and other theaters in the region, including two owned by Brian Mitchell’s Mitchell Theatres, have something in common: the goal to bring entertainment and act as a quality of life asset to their communities.

“I think people in bigger towns, cities, just kind of take the fact that they have a theater anywhere, everywhere playing all day, every day a little bit for granted. It’s kind of special to be able to have this on the weekends…” said Brecken Mangan, manager of the Star. “It is just something that helps with everybody’s overall well-being.”

What plays at the theaters is up to the managers, with some caveats.

Per studio rules, playing a movie closer to its release date means having to play it longer, and one-screen theaters can only afford to play a movie for a week or two before attendance dives, Velasquez and Mangan said. And some movies are released on such a small scale that they may come out on DVD before their available to smaller theaters, Norton said.

Every theater has to pay studios either a flat rate of about $250 per movie or a percentage of ticket sales ranging from 35 to sometimes more than 60 percent, managers said. A movie audiences don’t respond to can cost the theater significantly.

At multiplex theaters like Sequoyah 9 in Garden City and Southgate 6 in Liberal, managers ultimately choose movies, but have to maintain an amicable relationship with film studios. With Mitchell and other theater owners, the goal is to offer locals a wide selection. When the flow of major releases is slower, like in January, it’s easier to find space for something less conventional, he said.

The less conventional is the norm in Mitchell’s hometown property, the one-screen Doric Theatre in Elkhart. Sitting in Kansas’ southwest corner, the Doric is an outlier among regional theaters. The chain gives more financial flexibility than one-screen theaters, allowing Mitchell in 2016 to reopen the classic location as a small town indie theater. Large films play on Fridays and Saturdays.

So far, the theater has played every Best Picture nominee save “Roma” and “The Favourite,” along with plenty of other smaller films on and off the list of Oscar nominations. Sometimes locals respond to the movies, sometimes they’re too out there and attendance is scarce, he said, but the option is there.


What will play?

The region doesn’t always line up with national box office trends. Faith-based movies like “I Can Only Imagine” usually do well, owners and managers said, but Marvel and Star Wars movies sometimes fall flat, especially in smaller communities where fans don’t want to wait several weeks for the latest movie to come to the local theater.

Animated kids’ movies are always a hit, and mainstream horror and action movies tend to attract audiences. But many people opt for films with rural settings over urban ones, Mitchell said.

Most customers in Tribune aren’t huge science fiction fans, instead turning to war movies or films based on a true story, Mangan said. Mitchell said Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” did well recently, as did 2014’s “American Sniper."

And demographics and politics seep into other movies’ success, as well. Films featuring minorities don’t always do well in southwest Kansas, managers said. “Black Panther,” the country’s highest grossing movie of 2018, was not one of the strongest performing Marvel movies in Ulysses, Velasquez said.

Mitchell said the nationally successful “Crazy Rich Asians” did not do very well last year, nor, generally, do movies featuring gay characters or themes.

The results feed into managers and owners’ expectations for certain films, and they may not pursue something they think won’t bring people in. But Mangan and Mitchell said they believed audiences would like a movie, or if it was at least good enough to deserve a chance, they would fight for its place at their theater.

Velasquez, as a rule, said she avoids playing anything political, while Norton said political movies or films featuring gay characters or a mainly black cast may or may not play well, but she’ll bring them in if the community shows enough interest. Mitchell said he would play anything at any theater — if someone does not like a movie, they can just choose not to go. Regardless, Mangan said a lack of openness from customers is not a problem.

“I think people are more open out in this area than they used to be toward things like (minority or LGBTQ characters) and that’s not the issue,” Mangan said.


Other options

There are other options to find films that don’t come to local theaters, Velasquez and Norton said. People can always drive to other cities to see movies not showing nearby, and new movies are quickly available online or through stream services, Velasquez said. Even one of this year’s Best Picture nominees, Netflix’s “Roma,” is available now to anyone with an internet connection.

But Mitchell said there is something to watching a movie at a theater.

Kids’ movies are best seen in a theater full of kids that will laugh at anything, he said. When watching “Unbroken,” a 2014 film about an American soldier sent to a Japanese prisoner of war camp in World War II, Mitchell’s theater in Hawaii was full of Japanese guests of all ages who reacted differently depending on their generation.

Seeing a movie about racism or homophobia in a room with people who have experienced it first-hand affects him and spurs conversation afterward. At the end of “American Sniper,” after the movie switched to real life footage of the main character’s funeral and credits began to roll, no one would move, he said.

“That’s the kind of stuff that, no, (if) you’re watching that at home, you’re not going to get that impact…” Mitchell said. “That feeling that you’re all right there — you can’t get that at home.”

When the “Fast and Furious” movies first came out, kids would hot rod down Main Street in Ulysses trying to be Vin Diesel, Velasquez said.

Christy Hopkins, one of the Star Theater’s board members, said she loved 2017’s “Coco” because it taught her about elements of Hispanic culture that she did not know much about and that were an important part of Tribune’s community.

“Green Book,” a movie that focuses on racial injustice in 1960s America, did not do well in Garden City, and left quickly because of a low attendance, Mitchell said. When genres or types of movies do poorly in certain areas, it’s harder for theaters to get something similar from studios down the road, he said.

People talk about movies and good movies, be they mainstream or not, Oscar-nominated or not, make an impact, Mitchell said. They can open windows to different lives and perspectives.

But first, people have to show up.


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