‘We’re putting in new carpeting, painting, a new concession stand, and new lighting. We thought that would make a more inviting and hospitable environment,” says John Toner about the current reopening of the Garden Theater movie house in downtown Princeton.
Princeton University — owner of the 400-seat Garden Theater since 1993 — announced this past April that the company that Toner represents, Renew Theaters, will start operations on July 1 and offer a combination of first run, art, and revival films as well as public events.
The former management company was Garden Theater Incorporated, part of the Destinta Theater Company based in Lodi, New Jersey.
Toner says that one of the immediate changes will be Hollywood summer night classics screenings on Wednesdays and Thursdays. That includes a series featuring actor Jimmy Stewart, who graduated from Princeton University in 1932. Among the Stewart films being shown is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” set for Thursday, July 10.
The Renew Theater company is based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and perfected its approach at its County Theater, a venue known for providing a vintage theater-going experience. “We do that sort of thing all year with classic Hollywood, films from the National Theater Live, art films, and independent filmmakers once or twice a week. That is in addition to our main films, which are running through the course of the week.” The National Theater Live is a project of the Royal National Theater in London.
Renew’s management differs from the recent management in that the new operation is a non-profit model. “We are a membership organization and want people to join. The nonprofit strategy in small communities is what is being used to save theaters across the nation. When you work on profit making your service suffers.”
Noting that Princeton is lucky to have an operating theater in the town, Toner says, “One of the keys is that the theater is locally supported. The (financial) support stays in the community.”
There are two non-profit aspects to Renew: one manages and develops a community-based non-profit cinema. The other is the theater that becomes a separate non-profit yet maintains a link with Renew.
In addition to the County and the Garden theaters, Renew is involved with the two other theaters in Pennsylvania: the Ambler Theater in Ambler and the Hiway in Jenkintown. Renew also assisted in reopening the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
“We provide the framework and staff to come in to operate the theater. Then each theater reimburses us for cost. All the profits for each theater stay with each theater to improve it physically and with programming,” says Toner.
Revenues come from a variety of sources. “Membership support is our primary support. For instance, between the other three theaters we have about 15,000 members. The County has over 5,000 members, the Ambler has 8,000 members. So we have that overall community support that for-profit theaters do not have. The key is to do that for the theater to stand alone and have support as its own local theater. So support of the Garden Theater stands to help the Garden Theater itself,” says Toner.
Basic membership levels are individual ($50), couple ($75), senior ($40), senior couple ($65), and student ($40). Members pay $6 admission to all main films in Princeton and Renew’s other theaters, have reduced or free admission to other theater events, and receive a tax deduction. Other levels include producer ($120) and angel ($1,200) with additional benefits.
Additional income includes ticket sales and “working with business, business sponsorships, and advertisements on the screen. Businesses are a major source of income,” he says.
Noting only that Renew has a long-term lease with the university, Toner says that the movie house will be run initially as Princeton Garden Theater LLC while a non-profit board from the community is created. “We’re going to get a local advisory board. But this is a work in progress. Each theater contracts with Renew to provide management, which Renew does at cost. Since our group has done all the renovations for them, we have a great relationship with these theaters.”
The overhead and management for the Garden Theater — estimated to be upwards of a million dollars annually — includes one manager, two assistant managers, eight to twelve part-time staff, film rentals, utilities, and other related costs. “We will bring in people to get it up and running and then hire people. Eventually the theater staff will be entirely local,” he says.
Renew Theater’s associate director and former Ambler Theater staff member Christopher Collier was recently named the Garden’s manager.
Since the organization is using digital cameras, the company will not be required to hire union film projectionists.
A recent visit to the bifurcated theater shows that it benefited from the $1 million renovation in 2000-’01 and 2013’s facility modernization that included upgrading the theater’s analog projection system to a digital cinema system with new projection, surround sound, and movie screens.
Toner’s involvement with the future of the Garden Theater also includes serving on the future board, just as he does with the other theaters. “Because I have been involved with getting each of the theaters up and running, my involvement is as a creating member of each entity,” he says.
He says that the Renew Theater organization developed out of the efforts that preserved the County Theater in 1993 and then the operations of the Ambler Theater in 2003. “When we opened Ambler we started a nonprofit so we could do a multi-management team.”
Toner says all Renew Theaters are small downtown structures built between 1920 — when the Garden Theater opened — and the late ’40s. While once a normal part of a small town, many of such buildings have succumbed to changing habits and commercial needs. Yet the buildings spur people interested in quality of life, history, and personal memories into action.
“At this point 90 percent (of these theaters) are no longer in existence. The industry has gone to multiplexes as a business model. But I wanted to save the Doylestown Theater, which I remember as a kid. So through the nonprofit the community owns the theater. It was new when we started but now it is a strategy.”
Doylestown-raised Toner, 63, says that the County Theater, built in 1938, had been run by the Budco Company into the late 1960s. “Then independent operators came in and ran it for the next several years. The owner was going to use it for an alternative use. I was involved with a film society and with one last chance we rented it for an event and it was successful. We purchased it within five years and have been running in the black since. Others asked us to help.”
The film society was named Closely Watched Films and operated from 1983 to 1993. “We started it in the days before video. We showed 12 shows a year at a junior high school. Then the opportunity to save the County Theater came up, and we jumped into that rather than continue the film society,” says Toner.
A former general practice lawyer — whose father was also a lawyer in the town — Toner adds that the effort was transformative. “I thought how much work could it be saving a movie theater? It was like people going in and saying how hard is to run a restaurant. Like any small business it turned out to be a lot of work. Over time I was doing both jobs for about five years and found that I enjoyed running a movie theater. So I phased out (the practice) and was just running the theater. I enjoyed practicing law a lot and decided to be a lawyer for variety of reasons. But I found that I liked running a small business and a movie theater more.”
The married father of two children says although he liked going to the County Theater, he did not consider film as an art form until he went to college in New York. “There were these repertory film houses where you could see Hitchcock, Fellini, Bergman, and Bogart. It was really during that period that I became excited about all sorts of movies. That led to my return to Doylestown and forming the film society.”
He also used to come to the Princeton summer screenings at Kresge Auditorium. “I would go all over the place to see films.”
Toner says that his official favorite film is “The Lady Eve,” adding that its director “Preston Sturges is my favorite English speaking director. I also like Fellini and Bergman, but that’s more reflective of my age when they were all shown. Billy Widler, Hitchcock, I love film noir.”
One of the things that surprised Toner with reviving old film houses is “the ripple effect it had on other businesses. By making the movie theater successful it helped revitalize downtown Doylestown. There was much more vitality. There was evening life. We took the theater to be unsuccessful to 85,000 through our doors who wanted to do other things. That’s been a pretty consistent number through our existence. The excitement that it caused among the other business was unanticipated and very rewarding.”
The experience also gave him an awareness of running an entertainment business. “The challenge is maintaining a consistency of programming. People look to us for good films. They rely on us to show those good films,” he says.
In addition to quality films, there are other expectations that enhance the film going experience. “You have to have popcorn. In addition to what we call Baby Boomer candy we have more upscale chocolates and things like that. We’re still working out what the mix will be there.”
Toner is already thinking about how to strengthen the theater’s community network. “We hope to partner with (the university) to do outreach to faculty and students and make the theater available for local community groups. A lot of the programming we’re doing in response to what local groups want to do and in collaboration with them. It will take a period of time to make those connections. One of our goals is to have as much community outreach as possible.”
That outreach includes theater rentals. “You will be able to rent the theater but other opportunities will be collaborative. It depends on the group and the circumstances and how things align. We have many ways of doing things. As a small organization we’re pretty flexible. It will depend on the needs of our partners.”
The bottom line, though, is the experience. “It’s so much more fun to see a classic film and an artistic film in a community setting than staying home. I think it makes it feel special. Nothing beats seeing movies with a crowd. It is a different experience.”
“We look forward to revitalizing the Garden to its full potential,” he says.
The Garden Theater, 160 Nassau Street, Princeton. For more information, including the full schedule of offerings, go to www.thegardentheatre.com.