One year after opening, Point Richmond art film theater struggles to find crowds

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On a recent Thursday evening, Ross Woodbury greeted the 30 people gathered for a free screening of the 1947 film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” at his one-screen theater in Point Richmond, The Magick Lantern.

“Has anyone seen the new ‘Walter Mitty’ (movie) yet?” Woodbury asked the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers. “I haven’t seen it yet. I watched this one just the other night and it’s just a piece of fluff.”

Before he exited and started the film, Woodbury grabbed a bucket and passed it around the audience.

“Those of you who can, please toss a little something in here so we can pay the bills,” he said.

Woodbury is quick to admit that one year after he opened The Magick Lantern, it isn’t making any money. While many people show up for the free Thursday classic movie screenings, crowds are hit-and-miss for the $7 art and foreign film screenings during the weekend.

“Right now (the theater) is being run as a charity,” he said. “The films I show are really, really good, but they’re generally not as well known. There’s x-number of people who come every week, and I’m delighted with them and love them. But there just aren’t enough of them.”

Woodbury, 59, is a film fanatic who supports himself by selling movie memorabilia online. A Bay Area native who lives in Grass Valley, he trips down to Point Richmond to operate The Magick Lantern from Thursday to Sunday.

Woodbury once owned a successful movie theater in Nevada City, the Magic Theater, which he sold the rights to a few years ago.

A year ago, Woodbury wanted to open an art theater in the Bay Area and checked out Point Richmond. He quickly fell in love with the quaint, historic neighborhood and found a home for his dream. The early 20th century architecture, charming sidewalks, inviting storefronts and friendly denizens seemed like the perfect place for his little theater. But filling the seats isn’t easy.

“It’s really hard to get the word out,” he said.

City councilman Tom Butt serves as a partial landlord of the building on Park Place, where the theater is located. Butt said he liked having a theater in the neighborhood and helped cut Woodbury some breaks on rent to keep it there.

“It’s to the point now where we’re looking at it as kind of a charitable gesture on our part to provide a public service,” Butt said. “I wish more people would come. I think they’d really enjoy it.”

Butt said some businesses in greater Richmond and Point Richmond suffer due to lack of support.

“If people want a community that has these kind of services available and has things they enjoy doing when they want to enjoy them, they’ve got to turn out and support them,” Butt said.

Point Richmond resident Linda Newton, 70, said she’s frequented The Magick Lantern since it opened.

“I don’t like multiplexes,” Newton said. “There have been times where I could’ve gone to another theater to see the same film and I came here. Ross is friendly. He gives a little introduction (before the films). It feels like a community activity.”

At the screening of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the amiable Woodbury smiled and laughed occasionally as he told his visitors of the slate of films coming up.

“We’ve got some really good stuff coming up, including — and this makes me feel old — the 50th anniversary of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ with The Beatles,” Woodbury said.

Minutes later, his guests sprinkled their appreciation into his donation bucket.

Woodbury estimated the theater averaged about 50 attendees throughout the course of a weekend. He said he would need about 100 people to come each weekend to keep his labor of love going.

“I’ll stay here as long as I can,” he said. “But it would certainly be nice to get more people here.”

For more information on The Magick Lantern, visit www.themagicklantern.com.

5 Comments

  1. Theresa

    I didn’t know about this is a place I can see the list of movies and when they are playing?

    • Magick Lantern

      Everything you need is at:
      themagicklantern.com

      • M.N.

        I’d never heard of you either, and I’m a film lover living in Richmond. A google search did not bring up your website, and the address in the article and in the comment here does not bring up a website for you.

      • Michael

        I am thrilled to know about this. Thank you for posting the website.

  2. Ted Cannolo

    That the Magick Lantern “struggles” is one way to look at it. But what a naive take on it. What other startup doesn’t struggle for the first few years, especially one that competes with bigger, better publicized theaters? Isn’t “struggles” just old, boring news?

    Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have looked instead at how this little theater shows a wider, more interesting variety of movies than the multiplexes do, does so at lower cost to attendees, and provides a nice place to run into neighbors?

    In how many other neighborhoods would such a place have any chance at all? Where else would people throw donations in the bucket? Where else will the landlord — “partial” as he is, is not known to be a pushover — give such a place a break?

    Were this not Richmond but San Francisco, and were the company Twitter, would you use “struggle” in the headline? By your standard, Twitter still struggles, relying as it does on venture funding, which is similar to donations if potential returns include social effects for the community.

    Maybe the Magick Lantern is not just another pathetic Richmond failure. Maybe it’s a trendsetter. Did you consider that?

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