THE LINES TOLD the story. Late last December, the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? began a profitable five-week run at Capitol Hill's venerable Egyptian Theater (a movie hall since '81). Owing to the great bluegrass soundtrack and George Clooney's dapper comic Gable-like star turn, the chain-gang escapee comedy was doing boffo business. Then it left, moving to other theaters (including smaller screens within the Landmark-Seven Gables chain, which had previously enjoyed O Brother as a lucrative exclusive engagement).
What took its place? A previously arranged weeklong run of Chunhyang, a weak-performing South Korean film. Why? Since 1999, the Egyptian has devoted its big screen mainly to repertory fare (with occasional festival and first-run exceptions). Its calendar has been printed months in advance—allowing for little booking flexibility. That's all going to change.
Landmark management decided last week to return the Egyptian to first-run movies, which it in fact carried for most of its history. Going into effect in early November, the new policy may seem abrupt, but it's a calculated business decision.
Might some Cap Hill art-house enthusiasts be grumbling about the change? Landmark's Varsity theater will continue to use one screen for specialized programming (which includes rep, indie, and foreign flicks), but the U District's a long schlep away for some cineastes. More importantly, their video store's closer. Tape and DVD are now the most common means of catching up with the classics. Given that not all of the Egyptian's recent runs have truly merited the big-screen treatment (Thomas in Love, anyone?), returning to new releases can make sense—if the theater can compete.
Everyone knows about the Egyptian's flat, terrible sight lines. It's got a certain shabby-chic charm, but the upscale Pacific Place has comfy seats and subsidized parking. Among old-school, single-screen movie palaces, Paul Allen's lavishly restored Cinerama is now Seattle's venue of choice for epics like Pearl Harbor and Apocalypse Now Redux. Could the Egyptian be brought up to those standards? And at what cost?
That would depend on two factors: 1) the financial health of its new owners (Oaktree Capital, which bought the ailing art-house chain this spring); and 2) whether the Egyptian could get a long-term lease from its landlord, Seattle Central Community College, that would allow it to justify and amortize capital improvements. Moviegoers may have every reason to wish for a rehabbed Egyptian, but that's another bottom-line decision Landmark has yet to make.