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Catalina Island Co. plans to shut down Casino theater

Avalon's residents and visitors won't be able to watch movies at the historic building anymore, with the building citing poor attendance.

AVALON—Build it and they will come. And then one day, they’ll stop coming. One of the most iconic destinations on Catalina Island could soon be fading into the realm of nostalgia, as the Catalina Island Co. recently announced Avalon’s sole movie theater would soon be showing its last film.

The theater, which is located inside the Catalina Casino building and holds about 1,100 people, has been entertaining Avalon’s guests and residents for about 90 years. It is one of the oldest continuously-running theaters in the country. A Catalina Island Co. announcement about the theater’s closing stated it was no longer viable to keep it open. An article about the theater’s closure in Variety, one of the entertainment industry’s trade magazines, stated an average of 42 people filled Avalon Theatre each night for 85 percent of the films screened there – less than five percent of capacity.

Company leadership blamed lackluster leadership on the onslaught of streaming services now available – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Now, YouTube Premium and Disney+, to name a few. The city’s small permanent population doesn’t help, either. The theater would consistently be near capacity if one in four residents watched most or all of the films coming in and out of Avalon Theatre – an impossible goal or expectation.

Those who visit the island, just the same, have plenty of activities to choose from – watching a film at Avalon Theatre, as cool as it might be, probably isn’t high priority for tourists or visitors.

Now there is at least one online petition, challenging Catalina Island Co.’s decision to cease the theater’s operations. The petition was started by one Melinda Benson and posted on the website, Catalina Island Co. and the city of Avalon were the two entities petitioned.

“On November 7, 2019, the Santa Catalina Island Company abruptly announced its plan to close Avalon’s beloved theatre because the operating costs are too expensive and hinder their ‘good business strategy,'” Benson wrote in her petition. “The Island Company blames online streaming services and royalty payments for a decline in profits, but they did not seriously explore any of the many viable alternative options available, nor did they seek any input or assistance from the community they serve.

“They simply sent a letter of termination to theatre employees and summarily issued their edict to Avalon,” Benson continued.

She added the theater is actually a major draw for visitors and residents alike, and discontinuing the exhibition of film at the Casino would be detrimental to Avalon’s economy.

“This will … be a devastating loss for visitors, upon whom the economy of the island and the Santa Catalina Island Company, itself, depend,” Benson wrote. “Many of these visitors return year after year and seeing movie at our beautiful theatre is an experience they look forward to as a highlight of their trip.”

Benson urged people to sign the petition – there were about 10,000 signatories gathered as of Nov. 19 – to send a message to the Catalina Island Co.

“The Island Company has made many controversial changes to the island and to Avalon in recent years and most have suffered them in silence,” Benson said. “It’s time to raise our voices. Your signature here will … show the Island Company how vital and important this landmark theatre is to so many different people for so many different reasons.”

The island’s newspaper of record, Catalina Islander, published a few letters to the editor in response to the theater’s closing.

Gary Preeo of Lodi, California said he has visited Catalina annually for the past 43 years; he asked the Catalina Island Co. to reconsider its decision.

“Instead of ‘upgrading’ food/etc., how about lowering prices so everyone can afford to enjoy the experience? It is just sad that yet another Catalina Island icon is disappearing because of ‘lack of profit,'” Preeo wrote in his letter.

Another reader and Avalon resident suggested a nonprofit take over the movie theater and start showing classic films.

“I am hoping that the Catalina Island Co. will work with a private, islander based, non-profit organization, that wants to keep the theatre going,” Chuck Liddell of Avalon wrote in his letter. “It would seem to me that showing more classic films, and older popular films, possibly changing every night or two, would make more sense than working through a distributor who will force the film to stay around for one to two weeks!”

Someone on a Facebook page dedicated to Avalon issues suggested anyone seeking to save the theater should apply for the Casino to be designated as a historic landmark.

A letter from the Griffin family in Santa Monica demanded an explanation for the closure, stating the community did not have a say or voice in the decision to shut down Avalon Theatre.

“Taking away the movie theater is the last straw for our family – this is just too sad to bear. Going to the movies at the Casino was a great joy for us – hearing the organ player and feeling like we were back in the time in the 1950s – all so special,” the letter collectively signed by the Griffins stated. “An explanation would be in order. Please realize that there are many, many people who come year after year without fail who deserve a voice in the severe decline in Avalon and the vision for the future. We are not happy.”

The Catalina Island Co., through its Facebook account, posted an official statement on the “Catalina Discussion” page (also on Facebook).

“We would like to inform you that as of January 1, 2020, we will discontinue showing movies at Avalon Theatre. Over the past several years, with more people turning to digital on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu, Sling and others, theatre attendance has decreased and operating losses have increased,” the official Catalina Island Co. statement read. “Our efforts to attract more customers by offering expanded concessions have not been enough to reverse these trends.”

The official statement added tours and special events – Catalina Film Festival and Silent Film Benefit – would continue to be offered. Catalina Island Co. would also assist theater employees in finding alternate employment, the official statement continued.

Catalina Island Co. staff added a second, more elaborate statement on its Facebook page, in response to concerns raised about the theater’s closing.

“We are keenly aware of the tremendous history behind everything we do and the legacy and responsibility that goes with it,” the Catalina Island Co. statement on Facebook read. “While we have subsidized the theatre for decades, the expenses of something as seemingly simple as showing movies never cease to amaze us. For example, movie studios who produced the films we’ve shown this year took 35 to 65 percent of our ticket sales, while imposing restrictions, such as requiring that films run for a minimum of two weeks (or more, in some cases), despite our limited audience size.”

One two-week stretch of film exhibition at Avalon Theatre yielded a total of 181 guests – or 13 people per day.

Company leaders hoped the offering of “premium” concessions would help offset costs – but the plan didn’t work.

“We joined the new trend of offering more complex food, as well as beer and wine, in addition to the usual candy, popcorn and sodas, but soon found that the regulations pertaining to those not only led to huge increases in expenses, but also logistical nightmares,” Catalina Island Co.’s second statement, which was released on Nov. 9, stated.

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