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Risky Business: Bringing single-screen cinema to Lawrenceville

Cinemas have always been a tough business. Running one requires costly equipment and making devilish deals with distributors. Today there is added pressure to contend with home viewing options such as Netflix and Redbox.

Once spread out like post offices, only a handful of small community theaters in Pittsburgh have been able to hold out against the advent of the suburban multiplex: the Manor in Squirrel Hill, the Regent Square Theater, the Hollywood in Dormont and the Parkway in McKees Rocks.

This is why, when the first kernels of popcorn pop and the projector beams above the screening room for the first time at the Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, the scene will represent the triumph of an idea at which many investors scoffed.

“I still think going to the movies can be a great experience,” says Brian Mendelssohn, principal at Botero Development and the brains behind this project. “Sure, you could watch Annie Hall alone or you could come to our screening and be out in the community, hopefully with a few dozen other people who also love that movie.”

It all started as a passion project
Lawrenceville, a quirky neighborhood on the upswing, supports a tea shop, a maker of artisan bath products and a place that sells zombie-related paraphernalia, but a community movie theater? That is a crazy idea, potential investors said.

Arsenal Cinemas, the former local movie house in Lawrenceville, closed in 1965.

“A lot of people I turned to in the past were baffled by [the idea],” says Mendelssohn, of the new, one-screen, 88-seat, repertory movie house. “I also found there is basically no bank loan for something like this.”

He admits that the naysayers “did have their reasons” — the least of which was the fact he lacked a theater space to renovate and would be hollowing out a storefront in the middle of a block. 

So, why was Mendelssohn, an experienced developer, so bent on it?

“The idea is to have a night out,” says Geoff Sanderson, Row House’s general manager. “From the film to the snacks to the beer to the ambience, we will provide that.”

Mendelssohn, Sanderson and a third partner, Theo Ackerson, managed to find some financial sources that shared their vision. They shored up some funds from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, raised $17,000 on the crowd-sourcing website Indiegogo and added to that “basically, all the money I have,” says Mendelssohn. 
The plot thickens
Even after they got the cash, their task was not easy. The site was spacious for its former occupant, the Lucky Starr discount mini mart, but is cramped for a theater. Additionally, two other businesses are slated to share the space, a beer store called Atlas Bottle Works and a new outpost of the Homestead-based Mexican barbeque restaurant Smoke. (Yes, this means you will be able to take beer and tacos into the theater.)

Lacking the 20-foot ceilings needed for stadium-style seating, the trio tasked the construction crew with taking out the floor of a backroom and combining it with a basement. The new inclined floor looks like solid cement, but it’s actually cement poured over a wood-and-Styrofoam frame.

“If we had poured too much cement back there, the building might have collapsed,” Mendelssohn says.

This heavy construction delayed the opening date a few times. The date on which the cinema will open its doors is still to be determined, but anticipated to be this spring or summer.

“Our attitude eventually became it will be open when it’s open,” says Ackerson, who will manage Atlas.

The screening room is narrow, with 88 seats stacked into 13 rows and a single aisle on the side. The entrance and the concession stand sit before it on one straight line, giving it a structure parallel to the simple, one-room-in-front-of-another row houses that dominate Lawrenceville architecture and provided the inspiration for the theater’s name.

Hope for happily ever after
The inaugural film screened at Row House Cinema will be Pulp Fiction. It exemplifies the kind of movie the theater plans to prioritize: edgy but widely appealing, intelligent but accessible, aged but not yet a retirement home community room favorite. Among the other classics, they will soon bring back to the big screen titles including Psycho, Rushmore, The Big Lebowski, Shaft, Trainspotting, Barbarella and Do the Right Thing. The community should also look for themed weeks focusing on certain directors or genres.

Luckily for Row House’s business model, to screen older movies, distributors charge rates as low as 30 percent of ticket gross and sometimes only a flat fee.

The goal of creating the traditional movie experience extends to starting the show with previews from the same era as the “feature presentation” and holding intermissions. It also spreads to the concession stand, which will sell popcorn doused with real butter and engage in the old-timey practice of selling candy by the pound from bulk bins.

And though the movie theater business might, overall, seem as endangered as VHS tapes, there is reason to believe Row House might be a long-lasting institution in Pittsburgh.

"It's amazing that as the market for movie theaters is getting smaller and more competitive, the Pittsburgh community is expanding," says Chad Hunter, executive director of the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. "I think there is demand for neighborhood presentation of films."

Similar business models that embrace screening niche, classic films are working in other markets. For instance, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a national franchise of small movie theaters, is driving revenue by creating an experience that combines cult classic films with a full bar and restaurant. Themed events, such as a Home Alone pizza party at Christmastime, add to the appeal.

“There is a trend now towards theaters like Row House,” says Jack Oberleitner, an Ohio-based “cinema consultant” who has worked in the movie theater business in some capacity since he was hired as an usher in 1959 and who advised the Row House team. “It started in Europe with people buying storefronts and putting movie theaters in them.”

Oberleitner says that the movie theater business today is more about satisfying niche markets, which a small theater can support.

He contends: “Lawrenceville is more and more a Greenwich Village kind of place and I think you have enough film buffs in the city."

Photos by Brian Cohen
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