March 25, 2009

Q: Why is Racine a movie desert?
A: Because we're small

Even the Joker wishes top movies came here sooner...

By Julie A. Jacob


At the Academy Awards ceremony in February, several critically acclaimed files were honored with nominations and awards: Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Milk, Rachel Getting Married, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Wrestler.

All good movies—if you could see them. But for those of us who live in Racine, those movies were hard to find. Many of them did not appear at the Marcus Renaissance Cinema until weeks or months after they played in other cities. Others never made it here at all.

“The movies that the critics rave about don’t come to Racine,” is a complaint I often hear from family and friends. So what gives? Do the powers that be view Racinians as too rustic to enjoy complex, sophisticated Oscar-nominated movies? Do the Marcus Theatre executives think we’re only interested in blockbuster comedies and action films?

It turns out that the reason is much simpler: Racine is just too small to support the movies often referred to as “art house” or “indie” movies.

In the midst of the worst economic crunch since 1982, a slim choice of films in Racine may seem like a silly thing to notice. However, if you can resist the pricey, bathtub-sized servings of popcorn and soda at the concession stand, $6.50 for a ticket to a matinee showing of a film is good bargain in these lean times. That’s cheaper than a hamburger and a beer at a local restaurant and far less expensive than tickets to a concert or Brewers game. The price of a movie ticket, though, would be an even better deal if there were a wider range of films from which to choose. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the golden age of cinema, Racine had plenty of movie theaters and choices of movies for its residents. My 79-year-old father remembers going to see movies at the Rialto, Venetian, Crown and Capitol movie houses. He recalls that for 15 cents – 10 cents for a movie and five cents for popcorn – you could see a movie, a newsreel, and a cartoon. (Oh, and what movies they were: in 1939 — often considered the best year ever for movies — the roster of films playing in the theaters included such gems as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)

Nowadays, though, movie studies and distributors determine the number of prints to make and where to show the movie based on one thing, and one thing only: the film’s potential to make money. The bottom line is that Racine is not a moneymaking market for art house films, said Carlo Petrick, a spokesperson for Milwaukee-based Marcus Theatres.

“Many of these films are released by smaller companies that cannot afford to make a lot of 35mm prints like a major studio can,” said Petrick. “The major studios may also choose to limit the number of prints they produce. The Dark Knight may have 4,000 to 5,000 prints in the marketplace while Frost/Nixon had less than 500 for the entire country … the distributors choose to show their films in larger markets where their prints can earn more revenue. Then, the prints might be moved to smaller markets, but not always.”

Small, critically acclaimed films do better in large cities because urban cinemas that specialize art house, indie and foreign films have spent years building up an audience of loyal moviegoers, Petrick added.

When a print of an art house movie is finally available for the Marcus Renaissance in Racine, explained Petrick, the movie’s distributor often has no money left in the advertising budget to promote it, which is why the film often comes and go in a blink before anyone even realizes that it’s been here.

Prestigious awards boost the chances that an art house movie will play in Racine because those awards spark more awareness of the film, Petrick said.

“For instance, The Reader [opened] in Sturtevant … only after having won a major Oscar for Best Actress,” explained Petrick. “In this case the distributor decided to make additional prints to capitalize on Kate Winslet’s Oscar win. This does not usually happen.”

Racine has tried to attract additional cinemas to give residents more options, said Devin Sutherland, executive director of the Downtown Racine Corporation. The DRC attempted to interest a developer in building a movie theater downtown, but there’s not yet enough population density to generate developer interest, he noted.

So what’ s a dedicated movie buff in Racine to do? One option for devoted movie fans with free time on the weekends (i.e., no small children at home) is a day-trip to Milwaukee or Chicago to get their movie fix. The Landmark Theater chain operates movie houses in both cities that air films not often shown in Racine.

In Milwaukee, Landmark operates The Oriental at 2230 N. Falwall and The Downer at 2589 N. Downer. Landmark movie houses in the Chicago area include the Century Cinema, 2828 N. Clark, Chicago, and Renaissance Place, 1850 Second St., Highland Park.

In addition, some of the Marcus theaters in the Milwaukee area run smaller, art house films. Petrick suggests that moviegoers go to the Marcus website to check if the movie they wish to see is playing at any of its cinemas.

The University of Wisconsin-Parkside sponsors a foreign film series each year. Ticket information is available online. Downtown, the JavaVino coffeehouse, 424 Main St., periodically airs foreign and classic movies in conjunction with the Racine Public Library.

And, of course, there’s always Netflix

Yet even though many of the small, critically acclaimed movies bypass Racine, there’s another performing art genre that you can experience at the cinema here. The Marcus Renaissance is one of the movie theaters participating in a Metropolitan Opera program in which high-definition performances of its operas are shown at select movie theaters across the country. Times and dates are listed in the movie section of the Journal Times. The schedule is also posted on the Metropolitan Opera’s website. Usually the Met operas are shown on Saturday afternoons and Wednesday afternoons or evenings.

The response to the Met program should erase any doubts about the high level of interest among Racinians for the performing arts and films. Here's Dustin's report from last year.

“This is the second year we have been playing Met performances and reaction has been very positive,” said Petrick. “There is a very strong core of opera fans who have given great support to the series in Sturtevant and throughout our circuit.”


  1. We're NOT small! Madison is smaller and has a lot more opportunity for the non-mainstream stuff. I'm sadly old enough to remember our old theaters being torn down (or left to rot, like Uptown) and gladly old enough to remember The Oriental in Milwaukee falling into ruin (rock concerts in the 70's!) and then be refurbished, polished, and something I enjoy today. Maybe you meant we're "small" as in minded... I'm sure an opening of "Milk" here would have resulted in picketers/protesters.

    More and more, I drive out of town for my needs. We can't even keep our Big Lots open...

  2. Population of Racine 79,000 +/-

    Population Madison 223,389

    Racine is small in more ways then one.

  3. "Day Trip'?! Give me a break. It's less than an hour to the Oriental Theater on Milwaukee's Lower East Side. Why is it that an hour long drive is unthinkable to so many people in eastern racine county?

  4. And with Cable, Netflex, and Web Series where a film might cost from .99 to $5 PPV. Snacks are cheep if I miss something I can play back that part. I can not go to Marcus for less then $20 for Mrs Colt and I
    Cell Phones in the crowd talking teens etc. Why bother?
    Technology and economics are (Thank God) Killing all aspects of the Hollywood system.
    And Corry Mason D Racine is killing 200 + Union Film Jobs in Wisconsin Due to Doyle and his lap dogs we lost not only The Good Wife project but a CBS Series
    note: Michigan Film tax credits are providing over 1000 new union film jobs.
    The Governor Loves you Corry, your such a good lap dog!

  5. It will take an entrepeneur to tackle this issue. I moved to Racine from a small city of 30,000 that had a magnificent and well-attended theater for "art" and "indie" films. A visionary from NYC came to town and found his audience of people who do not go to mainstream theaters.

  6. Urban Pioneer3/27/2009 11:11 AM

    Perhaps we could see a co-ordinated effort with the Over our Head Players, and the 6th St Theater. during the off season...I would think a new venue would be in order. But that would be an out of the Box idea.

  7. All I know is we tried to see a movie on Valentines day and the theater was mobbed. The line reached to the parked cars 30 people deep and 50 wide. Do people only go to the movies on Valentines day? Can't wait for the drive in to open.

  8. All films noted have been or are now at the Regency Mall theater behind Target on Durand. But this theater is closing, sadly.

    So for us indie lovers, it's Netflix, streaming or the Oriental, Downer, or Evanston.