The ArcLight Boston has just opened its doors, thereby opening a new chapter in local film exhibition. Is Boston becoming a moviegoing town again?
It used to be a great one. Film lovers of past generations fondly remember the glory days of the downtown movie theater scene, with such storied locales as the Exeter Street (run by the legendary Berlin sisters and specializing in British comedies), the Gary (named for local exhibition kingpin Ben Sack’s son), the Kenmore Square, the Cheri, the Symphony, the Park Square (where I lapped up Marx brothers classics and Tracy-Hepburn films as a movie-besotted teen), and the eensy-weensy Pi Alley. There were plenty more; readers wanting a popcorn-strewn stroll down memory lane are advised to check out the cinematreasures.org website for pages devoted to every picture palace in town, open, closed, and long gone.
When I returned to Boston in 2002 to work at the Globe, after 2½ decades away, I was shocked to see only three commercial movie houses still standing, two of them new multiplex builds: the AMC Boston Common 19 (built as the Loews Boston Common in 2001) and the Regal Fenway 13 (originally the General Cinema Fenway when it opened in 2000). The eccentric Copley Place, near the Prudential Center, which jammed 11 tiny screens in a mall space several floors up, was the last, and possibly the least, of the Sack empire; it closed in 2005. In 2009, the folks who run the West Newton Cinema bravely reopened the old Sack 57 as the Stuart Street Playhouse; that lasted about two years.
Cambridge still had (and has) the Brattle and Kendall Square, Brookline the Coolidge Corner; other neighborhood theaters hung on, and continue to do so, in Somerville, Arlington, Newton, Dedham, and elsewhere. But for years Boston had the Common and the Fenway, and that was it. What killed our local movie scene? Home video, the abandonment of downtown, urban renewal, the shift from cost-high single-screen theaters to multiplexes — there are plenty of culprits. And with the switchover in the past decade to digital projection, and the resulting forced disappearance of the old-school projectionist, the art of movie presentation at the houses that do exist has taken a serious hit.
You’d think with the rise of streaming video and everyone staying home to watch “Game of Thrones,” the traditional movie theater would be on the ropes. But you would think wrong. The downtown boom of the past two decades has resulted in a lot of butt-ugly condo towers and some neighborhoods that feel like a development gold rush rather than anything organically hospitable to human beings. (I’m looking at you, Seaport.) But they are neighborhoods, and the people who live there want entertaining.
Thus the Seaport’s Showplace ICON, opened in 2018 by the Chicago-based Kerasotes Showplace Theatres, and built on the “luxury” model seen in many new suburban multiplexes: tiered pricing, recliner seats (heated!), grown-ups only after 8 p.m., a bar and restaurant on premises.
AMC recently opened a new multiplex in Dorchester’s South Bay Center, as well. I haven’t checked it out, but I have seen a number of movies at the ICON, and I can say the quality of the presentation — the sound and vision — leaves the average experience at other downtown multiplexes in the dust.
With the arrival this month of the ArcLight Cinemas Boston on Causeway Street, down the road from North Station, the competition just got stiffer and Boston residents’ choices better. The first Northeast foray of the Los Angeles-based ArcLight chain (owned by the Decurion Corporation), it’s a three-story whizbang of a space with a dedicated café-bar, a separate upscale cocktail lounge, a fresh approach to concessions, 15 screens that range from a 77-seater to a 280-seat “big house” with a 65-foot curved screen and Dolby Atmos surround sound, and a bespoke attitude in booking and presenting movies that hopes to appeal to a new army of downtown professionals.
I toured the space a week or so before opening, accompanied by a publicist and the theater’s general manager, Tal Hagigi, who explained to me that the new ArcLight should be considered a “premium theater” rather than a “luxury theater.” In English, that means you buy your food and drinks (including alcohol) before taking your seat rather than having it served to you; that while the first eight rows of seats recline, the rest, at a raked angle above the first rows, are “classic” style. The cost of an adult ticket (non-child or senior) will range from an across-the-board $11 for weekday matinees to $16 for weekend shows.
The emphasis, Hagigi says, is on the experience of the movie itself, and he talks a good game. The chain’s flagship theater is the ArcLight Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, a venue that has catered to the hometown industry by inviting in filmmakers and casts for special presentations and post-movie Q&As — Quentin Tarantino showed “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” there before anyplace else. The eagle eyes of that clientele mean that ArcLight gives priority to projection and sound quality, a reputation it plans to carry over to Boston.
The day I visit, the ArcLight Boston doesn’t look close to being ready to open in a week; hardhat guys are everywhere, as are plastic sheets and construction debris. If Hagigi’s sweating blood, he hides it well. We tour the individual houses; except for one projection booth to serve the 280-seater — which will also have 70mm film capability — all the digital projectors are in the theaters themselves, hanging from the ceiling in back of the room. Before a movie begins, a staff greeter will announce the running time and any interesting trivia and then start the film themselves; Hagigi says it will be part of the greeter’s job to test the projection every morning.
There won’t be ads, and trailers will be few and matched to the feature — no screaming horror-movie mayhem before you start your delicate period drama. Latecomers won’t be allowed in, which should make for some interesting conversations in the lobby. (If you’re hanging at the bar and want to change your showtime, they’ll do that for you.) The concessions process has been completely rethought and hopefully streamlined: Patrons will put in their orders at individual kiosks and pick them up when the restaurant-size kitchen has prepared it. Will this work? Well, it’s been focus-grouped. And, true to ArcLight’s stated commitment to the movie experience, noisy food has been banned: No crunchy nachos, and they serve something called “silent popcorn.”
Will notoriously judgmental Boston audiences bite? Will North Station commuters be tempted to skip rush hour for a movie, and will downtown’s new high-rise residents, young professionals and suburban refugees alike, take the ArcLight as their new home screen? Certainly the intended mix of multiplex movies (“Frozen II”) and art house fare (“Parasite”) will try to cover all the bases. “We wanted to build a theater for the community,” Hagigi says. Well, they built one. Now let’s see if anyone comes.