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What determines which movies screen in the Upper Valley?

  • Nugget movie theater assistant manager Russ Brady prepares a projector before the afternoon showing of a film in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 10, 2019. The theater was showing "Shazam," "Us," "Dumbo" and "The Aftermath" M. Kaufman and assistant manager Russ Brady prepare to open the theater Tuesday afternoon, April 9, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nugget movie theater manager M. Kaufman pours leftover popcorn into a case while popping a new batch for Tuesday afternoon, April 9, 2019. Kaufman said the movies the theater plays are dependent on what the Nugget's booker can get get from distributors while not conflicting with other local theaters. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College junior Simon Ellis, of Hawaii, buys tickets to a pre-screening of Avengers Endgame from Nugget movie theater manager M. Kaufman in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 10, 2019. Assistant manager Russ Brady, left, and Audrey Lee, 18, back, wait for customers to begin arriving for the afternoon shows. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Two upcoming movies are advertised in the lobby of the Nugget movie theater in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, April 11, 2019

If you want to see a movie on the big screen this weekend, you’ve got options.

The Nugget in Hanover still has the Jordan Peele horror hit Us, while Entertainment Cinemas in Lebanon has moved on to the new Hellboy flick. The Hopkins Center is showing Arctic, an indie thriller that’s approaching the end of its theatrical run, and They Shall Not Grow Old, a critically acclaimed World War I documentary.

On the other hand, you’ll have to do some driving if you want to see Little, a new comedy starring Issa Rae, which isn’t showing anywhere in the Upper Valley. But if Shazam! strikes your fancy, the latest in the seemingly endless buffet of superhero movies is playing in both Hanover and Lebanon.

Checking the listings, one might wonder how this particular mix of movies comes together week to week. What’s going on behind the screens?

A lot, it turns out. Choosing movies for local theaters is a complex process built on data and hunches, logistics and relationships, time-tested formulas and changing trends, all of it under the thumb of the studios that set the rules of the game.

“I don’t make what I sell. I don’t have the power to choose what gets made that I want to sell. I get told what I can play, and I do the best I can from there,” said M. Kaufman, manager of the Nugget, a four-screen independent theater owned by the nonprofit Hanover Improvement Society. “It’s crazy.”

To start with, theater staff request films they think will best suit their clientele. Larger, corporate theaters like Entertainment Cinemas, which has nearly 50 screens at locations around New England, can base their programming decisions on projected sales.

“We just try to play all the hits,” said Bill Hanney, owner of the Massachusetts-based Entertainment Cinemas chain. “We just know what our audience loves, and it’s the commercial blockbusters.”

Small independent theaters have a trickier job.

“The Nugget looks for the best quality movies, not the ones that are going to sell the most popcorn and soda,” said Kaufman, who has worked at the theater for nearly 23 years and served as manager for more than a decade. “A lot of it has to do with watching previews and trying to earmark the ones that look like a good fit. ... Sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong.”

Last summer, for example, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG sizzled. “That film was very, very solid. It definitely did much more business and was here longer than we might have anticipated,” Kaufman said.

Last week’s The Aftermath, a post-World War II drama starring Keira Knightley, on the other hand, fizzled, leaving the theater to negotiate a compromise with the studio.

Studios dictate, to a large degree, whether theaters get the movies they want and how long they have to keep them.

Here in the Upper Valley, that reality has been more problematic, historically, than in bigger cities with higher population density. Because the Nugget and Entertainment Cinemas are within about 5 miles of each other, studios have been reluctant to sell them both the same movie.

“We literally fought each other for movies,” Kaufman said.

Due to its larger size, Entertainment Cinemas usually won those battles, at least when it came to blockbusters and other crowd-pleasing fare.

There is, however, an element of persuasion to such transactions as well. Over the years, the Nugget’s booker, Bill Pence, has built relationships with the studios that have helped him land some coveted movies, Kaufman said. That’s especially true when it comes to more cerebral films such as RBG, which the Nugget is better poised to promote, he said.

“I think when (Entertainment Cinemas) has played those movies, they probably don’t do quite as well as we do,” Kaufman said.

Pence’s powers of persuasion also have ensured that the Nugget gets at least some of the blockbusters. Disney, for example, has tried to split its releases equally between the two theaters, thanks largely to the studio’s relationship with Pence, Kaufman said.

The turf wars are beginning to cool, too. In the past couple of years, studios have begun relaxing their policies around geographic proximity: Several big movies have played at both the Nugget and Entertainment Cinemas. On April 26, Disney’s much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame will open in both theaters — a first for a Disney film in the Upper Valley.

That’s not because the studio is suddenly feeling generous. “The industry has changed in the sense that, a film used to come out and, if it did well, it would be there six to 10 weeks,” Kaufman said. “Now, you’re really, really lucky if a film has more than three weeks of life in it. ... Having us show it and Lebanon show it, they must see some benefit to it.”

Digital technology that makes it cheaper for studios to distribute their movies to theaters than it was in the past may also explain the change, Hanney said. He is not a fan of the change himself.

“It’s not always the greatest idea because you kind of saturate the market if you have the same movie,” he said.

The restrictions haven’t ceased completely. Kaufman has heard that Disney will award its big summer films, which include Aladdin, The Lion King and Toy Story 4, to just one of the theaters. But it’s possible their holiday releases, which include Frozen 2 and Star Wars 9, will play in both theaters.

Avengers is going to tell them what they want to do this coming holiday season,” Kaufman said. “We have no idea what will happen with this shifting line in the sand. We have no power over it.”

The question of why some movies don’t come here at all is also complex — and sometimes controversial. A few months ago, the Taraji P. Henson comedy What Men Want played in Entertainment Cinemas’ larger theaters, but didn’t make it to the Upper Valley, an absence that rankled Meriden resident Deb Beaupre.

“Taraji P. Henson is a full-on movie star and I can’t see her on the big screen unless I drive all the way to Massachusetts or pretty darn near,” Beaupre wrote in a February column in the Valley News. That movie was a bona fide hit, currently in 12th place in domestic box office for 2019.

Hanney said he’s shocked that the movie did so well. “I thought it was a bomb,” he said. “There must have been other films that we perceived would do more business. Oftentimes we’re wrong.”

Other films featuring African-American leads — including Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and Us — have played here and done well, Kaufman pointed out.

“We do not discriminate in any way when it comes to who’s in the movie,” he said. “Again, it’s about the quality of the movie.”

Often the decision of whether to play a certain film comes down to space. Even with six screens, Hanney said he doesn’t always have room in the Lebanon theater for all the movies coming out in a given week. More screens mean you can take more chances on movies that have buzz but lack blockbuster appeal, he said. Fewer screens means fewer gambles.

Sometimes, too, it comes down to price. Every movie contract comes with its own terms, and some offer higher percentages of the proceeds to the theater than others.

“If there are two films that seem about equal, you might choose the better terms,” Hanney said.

The studios’ terms also dictate how long a movie stays in a theater — another factor that constrains choices. Even if a movie is doing poorly, the theater has to hang on to it for the duration of its contract. And if it’s doing well, a theater can’t drop it to make room for another movie that might do even better.

In the case of movies like The Aftermath, Pence can sometimes get the studio to let them stagger screenings of the flagging film with another, more promising movie, Kaufman said. But that takes strategy. They can’t bring in a new film that they have high hopes for if they’ve reserved the screen for, say, Avengers a few weeks down the road. Instead, they’ll often bring back a popular film that might have a little life in it. That’s why you’ll see Apollo 11 return to the Nugget this weekend.

Just don’t ask how long it will stick around.

“The most common question I get is how long is a movie going to be here,” Kaufman said. “And I can’t answer that question. I really can’t.”

If you don’t make it to a popular movie at the Nugget or Entertainment Cinemas, you can sometimes catch it at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, which plays about 120 movies a year, ranging from commercial features to indie films, documentaries and classics.

With just two screens and one-night-only runs, the Hop can’t hope to get anything the bigger theaters are playing until several weeks after they’ve closed it. Staff keep their eyes on the commercial theaters to determine which ones might play well at Dartmouth.

“The Nugget plays a great slate. They inspire us all the time. ... They help us because we play well after they do,” said Sydney Stowe, director of film for the Hop Center. “We’re like the last train out of town.”

Even being the last train, the Hop can’t wait too long to bring in a popular film. Because they’re programming further ahead than most theaters and scheduling films only when students are on campus, programmers sometimes have to pass on films they’d like to play.

Scheduling is just one piece of the logistical puzzle.

“Each of the films we play comes with five or 10 different reasons why we’re showing this film,” Stowe said.

Input from the college and the public plays a large role in the Hop’s programming. Stowe and her colleague Johanna Evans work closely with different departments and clubs to bring films that connect with what students are learning or discussing. Roma, for example, which Stowe had to “beg for,” from Netflix, had appeal across several departments and student groups. They Shall Not Grow Old was requested by 20 to 30 community members.

It wasn’t easy to get, though.

Fathom Events, which distributed They Shall Not Grow Old, doesn’t normally work with small art house theaters like the Hop. Evans, film programming manager for the Hop, had to persuade the company to let them show it.

“It’s a little bit of a dance. It requires a bit more negotiating,” she said.

On the other hand, being small can work in their favor. Stowe and Evans recently were able to get Mary Poppins Returns when it was still playing in theaters across the country.

“Their booker was like, ‘You guys are in the middle of nowhere. You can have it,’ ” Stowe said.

The Hop also is able to show some of the small, esoteric films that bigger theaters can’t take a chance on. (Occasionally, one of these turns out to be a big enough hit that the Nugget will take notice, Kaufman said.)

Finally, in this age of on-demand movies and portable screens, Hop programmers give a lot of thought to the full movie experience, Stowe said. They play fewer classics and throwbacks than in the past because so much is available on cable movie channels or Netflix, and they look for movies that demand a big screen, such as Arctic or Into the Canyon, playing this Saturday, or that might benefit from their fastidious audio engineering, such as A Star in Born.

”We try to have a mix of titles that are familiar, that people want to see, but they want to see it in our theater. We’ve got a great facility here,” Evans said. “Other facilities don’t have the same level of care that we do.”

Their ticket prices are also a little cheaper, which can be a draw, especially for students, who make up about 30 percent of the Hop’s audience.

The most popular movies tend to be those that offer something extra, such as a live guest, Stowe said. Reversing Roe, for which she brought in the two directors who are Dartmouth alumnae, played to a packed house in January.

“For me, that was without question the highlight of the last 10 years here,” Stowe said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.