Patrons will likely first notice the higher prices. Then they’ll notice the movies being shown, like “Black Adam” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” are the same ones the chain theaters in Salem are showing.
The city’s only second-run movie theater, Northern Lights Theater Pub, is switching formats to become a first-run movie theater beginning Friday.
Ticket prices will go up to $9 — $7 for matinees before 5 pm — from the current $5. But the theater owners believe it is the only way to keep one of Salem’s two independent theaters open amidst a changing movie-viewing landscape.
“We still are Salem’s most affordable place to go see a movie, but we have to do this and we’re trying to meet in the middle somewhere and hopefully choose us,” co-owner Kevin Roudebush said. “Now that we have first run, we hope to do really well.”
Tickets will still be $5 on Tuesdays.
Since it opened in 2002 — except for when it was closed from March 2020 through April 2022 — Northern Lights has been the only second-run movie theater in Salem.
With cheap tickets, a more expansive menu than other theaters and selling beer and wine, the theater has been a favorite in Salem.
But like all movie theaters, the business was impacted by COVID-19.
Located at 3893 Commercial St. SE in Salem, Northern Lights closed in March 2020 for what was originally going to be a temporary period. Roudebush opted to make it a permanent closure in August 2020 at the same time most cinemas around Salem — except the Regal theaters — were reopening.
He and partner Jeff Mexico, who has owned the Star Cinema in Stayton and the Dallas Cinema, partnered to reopen South Salem’s only movie theater early this year.
“It wasn’t until the Shuttered Venue Operator’s Grant came out that gave us the funding to reopen, and that helped us get reopened,” Roudebush said. “It’s not helping with everyday expenses now.
“At one point, we were talking about him completely buying the theater, but when everything crashed, he didn’t even want to buy the theater at that point. When I got the grant, I said, ‘Let’s do it together.’”
Trouble accessing second-run movies
They said the business was “great” in April and May as the pandemic eased and they had new movies and a newly remodeled theater.
But then summer hits.
Over the summer, they’ve had a hard time getting access to new movies to show.
Northern Lights has been showing “Everything Everywhere All At Once” for 12 weeks. They’ve been showing “Jurassic World: Dominion” for nearly that long, too — not because they want to, but because they haven’t been able to get other movies to show.
In the second-run theater world, they can’t get a picture until the first-run theaters in town have stopped showing it. “Thor: Love and Thunder” is still playing in the Regal theaters, two months after it was released.
And it’s already streaming on Disney+.
“Hollywood has changed their way of thinking and their rules,” Mexico said. “It’s just like a lot of the movies, especially Disney, they’re throwing Hocus Pocus 2 right to stream. We could have done really well with Hocus Pocus 2 at the theater.
“There’s a lot of movies that they’re putting right to streaming, not to theaters.”
Mexico said they pay about double for a first-run movie — they pay the studios based on a percentage of ticket sales — than for a second-run movie. That means it’s more of a gamble to switch over to first-run movies.
Second-run theaters impacted statewide
The movie landscape has impacted second-run theaters throughout the state.
The Academy Theater in Portland, long a bastion of second-run movies, changes to showing first-run movies in March.
The closest second-run theater to Salem will now be McMenamins Kennedy School Theater or Avalon Theater, both in Portland.
Northern Lights Theater Pub is one of two independent cinemas in Salem. The other, Salem Cinema, shows arthouse and independent films.
Mexico said at the Star and Dallas cinemas, they have to make big commitments to play first-run movies, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies like “Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.”
“Mainly, we are committed to a clean screen, can’t share the screen with any other movies, then you have to have it a minimum of two weeks, then you have to have to have to pay a higher percentage, almost twice as what a second run would pay,” Mexico said.
“But you fill the seats and they buy lots at the snack bar, so it works out.”
Now, they’re going to show them at Northern Lights, too.
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Pictures like “Top Gun: Maverick,” “DC League of SuperPets” and “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” that they’ve wanted to show at Northern Lights for months will start showing at the cinema Friday.
The first new movie they have on the schedule is “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile,” which is scheduled to be released Oct. 7.
“I think it’s the right change, and like I said, I kick myself for not doing this four months ago,” Roudebush said. “It would have been a totally different summer.
“Hindsight, we got to make the move. Hopefully, people will support it.”
Bill Poehler covers Marion County for the Statesman Journal. Contact him at [email protected]