Last Friday, the number of people who watched the first four films of the day at Riverfront Park’s Imax was zero.
It’s a sign of the times for the theater, which has experienced falling attendance since it lost the right to run first-run feature films.
On Monday, a subcommittee of the Spokane Park Board voted 5-1 to recommend closing the theater for six months next year, and park officials say that closing it for good is an option within the next couple of years.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out how it fits in with the future of Riverfront Park,” said Park Director Leroy Eadie.
The Riverfront Park Imax still has the largest screen in the area. But its projector can’t play digital movies, which limits how many films the movie house can show.
And that has cut ticket sales. The Imax is in the midst of losing money for the fourth straight year. Last year it lost about $160,000. The last time it made money was 2008, when it still showed first-run movies and wowed audiences with the Imax version of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.”
The city’s 30-year contract with Imax gave the city the exclusive right to Imax in the region, said Craig Butz, the Riverfront Park manager. When that deal expired in 2008, the city lost the right to first-run feature Imax movies, and those have shifted to the River Park Square AMC, which opened an Imax in 2009.
Riverfront Park can still show feature films second-run, but Butz said that without an upgrade to digital, the theater likely would have to close within three years. He said the city is examining installing new digital equipment from Imax or from a cheaper rival. Upgrading with Imax would cost about $1.2 million. A cheaper version could cost about $450,000, he said.
“The biggest question is whether the Park Board and the community believe that a giant screen theater will make the cut,” Butz said.
Next year the Park Board plans to add more detail to its plans for Riverfront Park. The first phase of the plan, which was adopted by the board last year, is vague on the future of the theater: “The current Imax theater may be retained as a digital 3D theater or repurposed into another use.” Once the Riverfront Park master plan is complete, park officials plan to ask voters for a tax to update the park, perhaps as soon as 2014.
Shortening the Imax season from mid-March to mid-September will be considered by the Park Board on Dec. 13. The theater already runs a weekend-only schedule during the winter.
Park Board President Randy Cameron, who voted in support of the plan to close the Imax for six months, said the theater must compete with updated technology or other unique offerings.
“Just because we agree to this new schedule doesn’t mean that we’re done with this,” Cameron said.
Spokane City Councilman Mike Allen, the council’s liaison to the Park Board, cast the lone vote against shortening the Imax season. He said it may make short-term fiscal sense to shorten the Imax’s season, but that step should be taken only after the board determines its long-term future.
Cheney native Aaron Schaber said he remembers going to Imax at Riverfront Park as a boy and being awed by the huge screen and super sound. He said the city should upgrade its theater to play 3-D movies and find a way to win back the right to run first-run feature films.
“It would be a huge loss for Spokane history,” said Schaber, a designer at a local advertising agency.
Spokane’s link to Imax started with Expo ’74. The environmentally themed world’s fair featured an Imax movie, “Man Belongs to Earth,” in an 800-seat theater in the U.S. Pavilion.
As the city worked to turn the Expo site into Riverfront Park, city leaders built the permanent 399-seat Imax theater, which opened in the summer of 1978 and cost about $1 million to build. At the time it was one of only about 20 Imax theaters in North America. Schaber has planned a trip to Bellevue later this month with three friends to watch “The Hobbit.” It’s the only place in Washington showing the film in Imax 3-D with a high frequency rate, meaning that the film uses 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24. Schaber said that if that technology were available at Riverfront Park, he and his friends would not travel across the state. If it offered Imax in 3-D like AMC at River Park Square, he’d prefer the Riverfront Park Imax.
“It has more than what the AMC has to offer,” Schaber said.
For one thing the city’s Imax screen is bigger. It is five stories tall.
But park officials say it’s harder to amaze moviegoers with an Imax 3-D across the street and increasingly advanced screens in people’s homes and pockets.
“It’s a tired facility,” Cameron said. “We need to freshen it up.”