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Firehouse Theater: A man, a dream and a commitment
As far as the man could remember, he hadn’t heard of Jude Law. Sitting in the theater, before the lights dimmed and the screen came to life, he mused that he’d like to know what other films the actor had made. By the end of the previews, not yet into the first moments of “Sherlock Holmes,” he held in his hand a list — Law’s entire filmography.
That’s the kind of thing that happens at the Firehouse Theater, a small-town, throw-back movie house where owner Craig Smith does just about everything to make his viewers’ experience a memorable one.
But nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills. As big-time as his theater is for the growing Kingston area, with its cushy seating, high definition and hot Hollywood blockbusters, it’ll take all of Kitsap to keep the place running.
Knee deep in a dream
When Smith isn’t loading reels, tidying theaters or bidding for films, he’s fine-tuning his projectionist skills — “it’s a craft” — tinkering with a popcorn maker or fielding questions from the audience. At the Firehouse, he introduces every showing, voicing fast facts and tidbits about the movie that’s playing.
The Firehouse is what Smith calls a “local theater with all the modern amenities.” The theater is open every day in downtown Kingston, an area populated by roughly 2,000. It boasts a 144-seat main stage theater with balcony seating and a sound-proof cry room. Another smaller theater seats 48, and the popcorn is made with real butter.
And then there’s Smith. It’s a Friday afternoon and he looks rightfully tired. He’d run a midnight showing of “Avatar” the night before, and was back to work after just a few hours of sleep.
Still, he’s abuzz.
“I just love opening night of a big blockbuster,” he said, talking on “Avatar” and its impressive effects. He may not have time to go to the movies recreationally anymore, but he certainly still appreciates them.
“Seeing a film in a theater enhances enjoyment,” he said. “It’s people sharing a common love.”
But there’s much more to the art of movie theater ownership than viewers may realize.
With a limited number of prints released, the Firehouse is one of many theaters vying to play the latest films. Smith’s agent acts as a go-between, navigating the pecking order to ensure the Firehouse is showing what movie-goers want to see. But schedules don’t always stick, Smith said, meaning sometimes a movie is added to or pulled from his lineup the Monday before its release, despite whatever advertising he’s paid for. That’s why “coming soon” is plastered beneath many of his movie poster advertisements — he’s at the mercy of the system. Sometimes that means not getting a movie until weeks after it has opened elsewhere, which clashes hard with today’s instant-satisfaction brand of consumerism.
Once a movie comes to the Firehouse, there are strings attached. Some studios require a movie be played exclusively, ousting Smith’s chance to offer different showings on the same screen. Others stipulate the length of their run. Take “New Moon” for example: It’s opening weekend this fall was, at the time, Smith’s best-selling movie ever. Crowds packed the midnight showing; the movie’s popularity drew viewers in hordes. But Smith was required to keep it in the theater for three weeks, and by the end of its run, attendance was sparse.
Studios keep upwards of 70 percent of ticket sales, which digs deep into the theater’s pockets alongside the steep cost of promotions, labor, rent and electricity.
Despite the run-around, Smith said he’s knee-deep in his dream. He shows up each day “for the love of film.”
The man behind the scenes
Smith also serves as a high school soccer coach and owner of Peninsula Video, a movie rental staple for nearly three decades. He has loved movies since childhood. Growing up in Indianola, he watched his first theater shows at North Kitsap’s Big Bear Drive-In and Almo Theater.
He went on to study acting in New York City, later earning a degree in Theater Arts, then keeping close tabs on the movie rental industry as it evolved, peaked and declined in the last few decades.
At 55, he’s invested his savings in the Firehouse — and has taken just a single day off since its opening nine months ago. After Peninsula Video’s relocation from a prime storefront locale to the inner channels of the Firehouse, business has seen a significant decline, Smith said.
But he jumped to correct what most would assume: “I’m far from burnt out.”
It takes a county
Smith’s vision for the Firehouse is a schedule balanced with the best: family films, art house indie flicks and must-sees. But he hinges on the whims of theater-goers.
“I want them to feel like it’s their theater,” Smith said. He is steering the place to be one of community pride, of caliber.
Frank Enfinger, 50, used to work in the Firehouse when it was an actual fire station, when the theater rooms were rig bays. As he sat awaiting the day’s first showing of “Avatar,” he said he was impressed. Expecting something smaller, something less of a bona fide theater and more of a handful of fold-up chairs and an amateur screen, he tipped his hat to Smith’s work.
“I was surprised,” he said. “It’s something (for Kingston) to build on.”
Smith said he’d like to cater unique showings, meaning movies like “Cheri” and “An Education” alongside box office champions, but he is still working to build that audience. It’s got to be a county-wide one, not just the North End, he said.
“It’s just going to take time,” he said.
Which is something he hopes to have enough of, as the cost of running a theater is none too merciful in down economic times. Despite reports of a $10 billion box office year nationwide, the aftershocks of the economy’s demise, Smith said, have been the biggest unforeseen challenge.
“Knowing now, maybe I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “But I’ve done it, and I’m glad.”