ST. HELENA — Perhaps fittingly for a business that specializes in high drama, it’s been an eventful 10 years for Cathy Buck at the Cameo Cinema.
Dec. 31 marked the end of her 10th year of owning the Cameo, one of the last independently owned, single-screen movie theaters in America.
She’s shepherded the theater through a tumultuous time in the movie business, which has mostly switched from film to digital, seen growing competition from the Internet and streaming services, and come to rely on blockbuster sequels engineered to appeal to overseas markets.
“The last five years have seen a lot of shifts in moviegoers, product, availability and percentages,” she said. “And it hasn’t been for the better for the little guys.”
The shift to digital became one of the Cameo’s biggest success stories. Movies now arrive on hard drives that are plugged into the theater’s digital projector.
When Buck acquired the Cameo, “You’d get your film in cans and have to put your movie together reel to reel to reel,” she said. “Then you’d have to break it down after your last showing and put it in a can for pick up that night so it could go somewhere else.”
The Cameo was quick to switch to digital and 3D back in 2009, when movies were still being distributed in both forms. The old film reel system had mostly been phased out by 2011, and being an early adopter of the new technology made the inevitable change much easier, Buck said.
Buck said there are two more technological changes on the horizon. The first will be when movies are downloaded via satellite. Some small indie films already arrive at the Cameo that way, through a computer called a CineConductor.
“I think in the next two years every movie’s going to come that way,” she said.
The second will be a 4K laser projector, which boasts more clarity than the Cameo’s first-generation digital projector. Buck expects to get one, possibly in the next year.
The Cameo has already upgraded its sound, installing in 2013 a Dolby Atmos system that placed speakers in the ceiling as well as the walls.
A tough year
This has been a tough year for the Cameo and the movie industry in general, Buck said. This summer’s box office was the worst in 25 years, and it was definitely the worst Buck has seen since she took over the Cameo, with business down by 15 percent.
Buck said there could be a few reasons for the decline, such as sequel fatigue, a healthy economy that allowed more people to travel instead of going to the movies, and would-be hits that failed to entice audiences.
For example, “Detroit,” director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” bombed at the Cameo and everywhere else, despite strong reviews, a big-name director and a fact-based storyline about race and social justice that Buck called “very relevant for our times.”
And, of course, theaters are facing increased competition from on-demand and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, which snap up the rights to promising movies at film festivals and transmit them directly to audiences at home, in Netflix’s case without even a token theatrical release.
“That’s the biggest battle for theaters today,” Buck said. “But the national news for theater owners is that the older demographic still goes to the movies, and we’re lucky that that’s our demographic. But they also travel more, so there are some checks and balances there.”
With low ticket sales and an unprecedented five-day closure during the October wildfires (sorry, “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” and “Battle of the Sexes”), donations will be more important than ever this year to support the Cameo’s community programming, which operates under the nonprofit Friends of the Cameo.
‘A community-based theater’
Buck wants to move further in the nonprofit direction, without alienating studios that might be reluctant to distribute first-run movies to a nonprofit theater.
“In reality, we are a community-based theater,” she said. “Our donations underwrite 30 to 35 percent of our programs. That’s what allows me to show the art films and bring special guests and do our film class and festivals. But we want to make sure that doesn’t adversely affect what we’re here to do, which is to tell a story through film.”
That mission has changed over Buck’s 10 years at the Cameo. It used to specialize in indie arthouse films, but “that didn’t pay the bills,” Buck said, so she started to mix in some blockbusters. But with studios getting stricter about how long their movies must be shown – sometimes multiple weeks for a surefire hit like “Star Wars” — striking that balance has gotten harder.
Despite the pressure to show movies for multiple weeks, Buck still tries to sprinkle in as many films as she can. The Cameo’s core demographic likes to come to the movies more than once every two weeks, and they don’t necessarily want to watch a movie they just saw the previous week, she said.
Studios have also insisted on taking a bigger cut of ticket sales. When Buck took over the Cameo, studios were taking 30-40 percent of box office revenue. Today they’re taking 45-65 percent, while the fixed costs of running the theater have remained the same.
Buck doesn’t want to keep hiking ticket prices, and the Cameo’s new $8 general admission for all shows and all ages is cheaper than that of its competitors.
“All I can do is keep listening to what our patrons want,” she said.
Picking the right movies
What patrons want isn’t necessarily the latest superhero movie, Buck said. She’s learned that Cameo filmgoers are strongly influenced by reviews in The New Yorker, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. When booking films Buck also pays close attention to a particular movie’s trailer, storyline, actors and director.
Cameo audiences are especially fond of period pieces and, unsurprisingly, movies about food and wine. They’re generally cooler toward superhero movies and blockbuster sequels, although there are exceptions like “Wonder Woman” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
And for every bomb like “Detroit,” there’s a sleeper hit like “Baby Driver,” which turned into Buck’s biggest surprise of 2017 thanks to strong word of mouth.
In addition to fine-tuning her movie choices, Buck has introduced more special events, going from about six a year to one a month. Guest speakers, Science on Screen and CinemaBites give moviegoers a more exciting, interactive experience, Buck said.
She’s also switched to earlier showtimes of 2, 5 and 7:45. She hopes that will help the Cameo retain matinee-goers who aren’t comfortable driving after dark and give people attending the late show enough time to get home by 10 p.m.
It’s still a challenge to reach young audiences who are used to watching movies on their phones, tablets and laptops, but Buck hopes to attract them to the social experience of “watching a movie with your friends and family and hearing the laughter and the sighs.”
“Little kids already love the theater,” she said. “That middle group though, those teenagers and college students, I don’t get too many of them. They’ll go to Santa Rosa and Napa and pay more for a ticket.”
“I would love to think of this theater being around for another 100 years,” she said. “I think it’s a very important vehicle for community. If people pick just one or two movies a month to come to, that makes all the difference in the world.”