Ross Woodbury looks around the lobby of his newly opened movie theater before hitting the lights and walking out. It’s just after 4 p.m., a little less than an hour until the next show starts. No one came to the earlier matinee.
Woodbury walks down the narrow hallway of the building which his theater occupies a small corner of; past the recently opened beauty salon the theater shares a wall with, and the clothing store in front of it. Entering the bright, Sunday afternoon light, he squints, turns left and goes into the Starbucks next door to grab a little coffee and kill some time.
Coffee in hand—a hot coffee in a tall, re-used cold coffee cup, halfway full—he sits down at an iron table out front of the coffee-shop and starts his story.
“I don’t live in town,” he begins, but he wants to. Woodbury, who a few months ago opened Richmond’s only independent theater in Point Richmond, has yet to find a home in the city. For now he’s commuting every weekend from Nevada City to run the theater.
He named it “The Magick Lantern,” after the image projector created in the 1700s. Until a few years ago he ran a similar shop in Nevada City—The Magick Theater—but he sold it after 20 years when he grew bored, and frustrated with the cold winters in the area.
Why did he decide to try again two hours away in this little neighborhood nestled between the San Francisco Bay and a major freeway?
“I’ve been coming to Point Richmond for years,” he says, pushing his brown, wispy hair off his forehead and over the top of his head instead. “It’s such a cute little town. Who knew this cute little place was here?”
Cute. That’s how Woodbury says people who stop in to see the Magick Lantern describe it. “Cute.” Or “adorable.” He’ll take it, but there’s an amused quality to his voice when he recalls the “compliment.”
It’s the sense of community that Woodbury feels in Point Richmond that’s drawn him here. And, he’s depending on that community now for the success of his theater. He has a web site but he admits he’s not well versed in social media or other web-ways of promotion. So far, news of the theater has been spread mostly through word of mouth, and he’s betting big that people in the area want to see quirky, offbeat independent films.
“I choose the movies I’d like to see, and would hopefully do well,” he says. “It’s not the usual mindless stuff.”
He hates the “mindless” stuff—movies that he describes as “anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone.” Instead he picks films that you won’t find at the big theaters—this week it’s “On the Road,” an ensemble-cast feature based on the 1957 book by legendary beat poet Jack Kerouac.
Woodbury won’t talk specifics about his profits, but he does provide a few insights. First, no theater makes money off of the ticket sales, he says—he charges $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $5 for kids/matinee attendees—it’s all in getting you to eat while you’re there. “We exist to sell popcorn,” he says, as he bursts into a series of short laughs. For large feature films, Woodbury says, theaters end up paying the distribution company up to 90 percent of ticket sales.
Second, he has yet to sell out a show. The theater—which he built by himself with rows formed from church seats—seats 40. “That includes the beanbags,” he adds.
Finally, he laughs long and loud at the question, “Is this your only source of income?”
“I have a warehouse full of old movie memorabilia,” he says. Selling it on eBay provides him enough steady income to live off of and helps him get rid of the stuff he says he’s probably hung onto for too long.
Just after 4:30 p.m., Woodbury glances at his phone and decides it’s time to head into the theater and get ready. Hopefully, he says, people will come.
The lobby to the theater is roughly the size of an apartment living room, and styled to reflect one. “I wanted to make it look like you’re walking into someone’s house,” Woodbury says as he walks into the room. A distressed wooden bookshelf spans the left wall, and among its many nooks are dusty books, VHS tapes, crinkled movie posters and vases with fake flowers.
Three framed movie posters hang on the right wall, although not the expensive ones he stores in his warehouse — he worries those would be stolen. Instead Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn smile down from glossy, mass-produced advertisements.
Walking behind the small concession stand at the back corner of the room, Woodbury looks around for something to do. The small space is already gleaming and the licorice, cookies and beverage offerings are lined up in neat rows. He won’t make any popcorn until people arrive. The clock hanging over the door shows it’s just after 4:40.
A few minutes later a man appears in the doorway and pokes his head in to the room. “Just here to look around,” he says. “It’s cute. I’ll be back.” Woodbury smiles and nods.
With less than 15 minutes until show time a couple walks into the lobby and Woodbury greets them warmly. Susy Freidman and her husband Mark Gruberg have been here before, and they say they love the place.
“It’s wonderful for Point Richmond to have a movie theater,” Freidman says. “He plays the movies we intended to see anyways,” she adds. They comment on the emptiness of the theater and Woodbury assures them it’s still a while until showtime.
Over the next 10 minutes a few more people trickle in, pay cash for their movies and snacks—everyone buys something—and within minutes of Friedman and Gruberg’s arrival the smell of warm butter fills the small space.
Nancy Arnold, who moved to the city in December, talks excitedly with Woodbury about the theater. She’s been here a few times, and says she’s told all of her friends about it. She says the place is adorable.
At 5 p.m., Woodbury pushes aside the dark drapes that cover one of the entrances to the theater and walks into the room where his half dozen customers are sitting in front of a blank 12-foot long screen, munching on snacks while they wait for the film to begin. He goes to the front of the room and shifts from right foot to left foot and back again as he describes the show. He tells them about why he chose this film and what to expect next week, and in the future—a documentary night soon and something for families. Despite the rugs he’s tacked to the walls to help with the sound quality, Woodbury’s booming broadcaster-style voice echoes a bit in the space.
As Woodbury starts the film for his small group of 5 o’clock moviegoers the street in front of the theater is mostly empty. A couple of women who look to be in their late twenties, or early thirties—a demographic he’s especially interested in reaching out to—are walking their small dogs down the street. One of them slows and then stops as she notices the 8 ½-by-11 movie poster he’s hung on the wall out front.
“Is that Kristen Stewart?” one asks.
“Yeah,” her companion responds, “I heard it has Kristen Stewart.”
“Let’s go check it out,” the first one says, and the two walk down the narrow hallway towards the theater, dogs in tow.
This story has been changed to reflect the reason Woodbury no longer owns the Magic Theater in Nevada City.