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Theater owner begs for help

Sun., April 18, 2010

SEATTLE – Some institutions circling the drain – the too-big-to-fail banks – turn to the government for bailouts. But not only isn’t the Columbia City Cinema too big to fail, its failure is imminent. And its owner, Paul Doyle, has sent out an oddball appeal directly to the public for donations.

“We’ve hit the iceberg and we’re going down,” Doyle wrote on his website and newsletter. “We’ve avoided checkmate a dozen times and we’re running out of moves. We’re almost out of gas. There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. You get the idea.”

How can people help? The answer is fairly blunt and doesn’t involve coming to see more movies at the theater: “Send money.”

If movie lovers are dreamers, Doyle might be more of one than most. It’s not as if he’s offering nothing in return for the public’s largesse. He writes: “For every $20 you give, you get a bogus but nice-looking stock option against the day when the cinema might actually issue stock. Don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but we’ve been thinking about it.”

Actually, he is more or less offering nothing. And there’s more nothing where that came from: $100 gets you five stock options “plus five acres and a half mile of waterfront in the newly acquired Cinematopia Island virtual land mass hovering in the ethersphere above the Puget Sound Basin.”

And Doyle promises more of roughly equal value the more people donate. As he says, you get the idea.

In less than two weeks, Doyle said, about half of his immediate goal of $20,000 has been met.

Sitting in the elegant building’s spacious upstairs lounge filled with old sofas, Doyle explained that attendance isn’t the problem. It’s that 1) a former tenant on the ground floor of the building cost money in unpaid rent and legal fees, 2) he then built two smaller auditoriums to fill the space on that floor, in addition to the slightly larger one upstairs, and 3) now he’s got a quarter-million-dollar debt load.

In fact, he joked – or maybe it wasn’t a joke – that the employee making the popcorn makes more money than he does because the person’s paid an hourly wage. (Doyle was taking tickets before the interview.)

A couple of questions immediately arise, though: Why should people fork over money to float a failing business? This isn’t the first time Doyle’s turned to the public to keep from going dark since he bought the joint in 2004. And why not have some sort of push to drive up attendance or hold benefit screenings?

“I don’t count the business as failing, even if it’s having financial difficulty,” Doyle said.

Doyle maintained that the theater is important to the neighborhood.

“It’s become an anchor to the Columbia City business district. Restaurants get a good portion of their customers from the theater. … It has become a community center, a place around which the community revolves.”

Noting that the Columbia City Cinema is the only movie theater within several miles, Rainier Chamber of Commerce director Susan Davis said, “I think I can speak for many people when I say we do want this theater to stay here.”

Doyle said people have helped before – giving anything from $4 to $1,000 – and they’re helping now.

He writes in his appeal: “We’re hoping for a scene like the one in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where everyone comes forward to save the Building and Loan.”


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