Beyond Mall Walls
Art house, gourmet and drive-in theaters entice Oklahomans.
Blake Smith, co-owner of Admiral Twin, says that the drive-in appeals to people of all ages and walks of life.
Photo by Heath Sharp.
Ever-rising ticket prices and ridiculously overpriced concessions combined with an onslaught of digitally enhanced, mediocre movies being churned out of Hollywood are leaving more movie goers turned off instead of tuned in.
It’s no wonder that the numbers at multiplex movie box offices are in a slump, and alternative movie-going experiences are on the rise.
Stay-at-home options, such as Netflix, On Demand cable and Redbox, may be growing in appeal, but Americans like to get out of the house and go places to be entertained, and the theater is a venue that continues to evolve over time.
Like all else considered “alternative,” movie theater alternatives come to life when the demand for something new and different from the mainstream is strong enough.
As a predominantly commercial-driven film market, Oklahoma has traditionally not had an art house following. However, in recent years, art house theaters, such as Circle Cinema in Tulsa and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s (OKCMOA) film program, have had a real opportunity to carve out a niche for independent and international film screenings due to an outpouring of demand in a commercially oversaturated market.
Both venues have experienced growing success, as the interest and attendance continues to gain momentum.
“Content is really what sets us apart from the mall movie experience. We really try to show the best of world cinema, and we work to have exclusive engagements of films that can’t be found in multiplex theaters,” says Brian Hearn, film curator for the OKCMOA film program.
“Our year round mission is to enrich lives through the visual arts. That’s basically what we do: we treat film as a visual art form, and it’s still entertaining. We show all kinds of genres of films, and it’s the weirdest list in the world. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Comedies, documentaries, classics – there’s something for everyone.”
Built around Oklahoma City’s last downtown movie palace, which was constructed in 1947, the OKCMOA has breathed new life into what had been known as a “pigeon palace” for years.
Gutted, refurbished and transformed into a state-of-the-art cinema in the original theater’s space, the historic theater retains all original architectural elements that were salvageable.
Boasting a Waterford crystal chandelier and café with a full bar, it’s safe to say that the swanky digs and film content selection cater to an adult crowd, whom Hearn says Hollywood has been ignoring for years.
“The studios are absolutely creatively dead in my opinion. There’s too much focus on comic book movies and sequels and teenagers who will come see the same movie over and over and buy a bunch of concessions,” Hearn explains.
“So many grown ups don’t want that. They want more than special effects-driven movies and A-list celebrities. They want movies that are going to be intellectually challenging and emotionally compelling. They want an experience that’s going to enrich their lives somehow.”
Like the vintage vibe of the OKCMOA theater, drive-in movie theaters also offer a tried and true, nostalgic alternative.
Though there are fewer than 500 operating drive in theaters in the U.S., Oklahoma metros are fortunate enough to be home to two of them: the Winchester in Oklahoma City and the Admiral Twin in Tulsa.
As Americana as cheeseburgers and Hollywood itself, the drive-in takes us right back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, says Admiral Twin co-owner Blake Smith, and an evening at the drive-in is more economical than going to an indoor theater, since with double features, there’s more bang for your buck.
“There seems to be a resurgence of drive-ins, and I think it’s because we cater to such a wide demographic of people,” Smith says.
“We offer options that indoor theaters can’t compete with. The drive-in is just a completely different animal. We get couples in Mercedes and folks in 1963 or ‘83 Buicks. The appeal is different all across the board.”
On the flip side to art house theaters catering to adults, drive-ins prove to be particularly good for young families, where kids can fall asleep in the car or run outside and play.
The in-car privacy factor allows for more flexibility. Don’t feel like dressing up? Forget about it. Talk, text, snack on all of that food that you probably shouldn’t eat but love.
A little bit of anything goes as long as you’re not bothering other people at a drive in.
“So many movie theaters now, even though they’re nicer than they were 15 to 20 years ago, with stadium seating and nicer seats and stuff – they’ve gotten a little sterile. I think that’s why so many people are realizing that they can see their entertainment dollar go further if they opt for something a little bit different,” Smith says.