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Bill Pence is a veteran of the film industry. He was the co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival; he has owned a chain of movie theaters in the Mountain West; and he was a co-owner of Janus Films, an international film distributor. He currently has two posts: he is Director of Film for the Hopkins Center for Performing Arts at Dartmouth College, and he books films for the Nugget Theater, a four-screen movie house in downtown Hanover, New Hampshire. The Nugget has been in operation since 1916, and is owned by the nonprofit Hanover Improvement Society. 
 
I interviewed Bill on January 24, 2011 for an article about the Nugget Theater. It was a wide-ranging conversation about his duties at the Nugget, and the state of the film industry. Here is a transcript of the interview. My questions are in italics; his answers are in plain text.  

How do you book films? What are you looking for, what are you trying to do? 

The Nugget, in terms of purpose for the Hanover Improvement Society, serves three functions. And at different times, any one of them could be more or less important. 

Those three functions are, (1) to provide cash for community services and infrastructure, (2) to provide quality film entertainment for a sophisticated university community, and (3) to be a force on the Main Street of Hanover such that it improves, enhances, supports the businesses in the community. 

So I say all three of those. That's what my focus has been. 

 

Looking at the marquee on any given week, you seem to have a balance: some films with broader box-office appeal, and others that are on the quality end of things. 

Yeah, it's very hard these days only having four screens. There's only so much  you can manipulate. And we also have a competitor in Lebanon [Entertainment Cinemas] that is more strictly focused on teenage entertainment. We try to be more adult. I don't mean that in terms of sex and violence, I mean in terms of adult thinking, themes, intelligence.

Films that have dialogue.

Films that have dialogue! [Laugh] 

Which is not to say that you won't sometimes show a film like Iron Man. 

Absolutely. What I really try to do, I try to get the best films, first of all. And our track record is really good on that. I would say, in the past 20 years, we've probably had 90 percent of the best pictures of the year, for example. The only one I think we lost was Lord of the Rings. 

So we try to get the best. But even more important is not being stuck with the worst. [laugh] I mean, the film companies, dealing with them is sort of a dance. They say, "Well, you can play this A-quality film, but I've got this C-quality film that needs to play, too." And I would rather play a second A-quality film that might do no business, but is better for the image of the theater and the community. 

One of the things about having a non-profit organization, you have the luxury of making some decisions that are not entirely motivated by the bottom line.  I would say over the years the Nugget has produced millions of dollars for the community of Hanover. It's been a really successful venture.  

And Hanover's been one of the few communities in America where the Main Street movie theater is nice. It's like Walt Disney's Main Street, you know? And towns are very much into historic preservation. I live in Portsmouth, and there, historic preservation is a big deal. But this is one essential element, if you look at pictures of all these Main Streets in the past, they all have terrific theater marquees. And now, downtown theaters are virtually gone! So I love the fact that Hanover has a downtown movie theater that's relatively prosperous. 

 

In its first few decades, the Nugget supported the Improvement Society and built its endowment. Now, if it wasn't for the Society, the Nugget would almost certainly be gone, like the other Main Street houses. 

  That's probably true. If one had to pay the rental for that kind of space, I'd probably agree with you. And the fact that the Society is there, guarantees the long-term existence of the theater. 

 

The Lebanon theater is part of a regional chain, and studios like to deal with volume. Is it tough to get the films you want? 

It is. I'm not sure I'd call it a fight, but it's much more challenging for the Nugget as opposed to this theater chain that has 70-some screens throughout New England. Even though the Nugget is a clearly superior venue physically, and clearly superior in terms of the grosses we will throw off, the fact is it's so much easier when the film salesman is going down the list: "I can check off ten theaters at once, or there's this little Nugget here?" It's a real disadvantage. 

Our advantage is, I've been in the business a long time. And I know a lot of the people.  It's not every town this size that has someone with my experience in the theater business, who can help break through those barriers.  

Overall, the Lebanon theater gets the things it wants, and I get the things I want. Pretty much. 

 

There are some cases, like Lord of The Rings that have some merit and are also popular. In those cases, they might go to Lebanon or you might have a fight. But in a lot of cases, they're not going to want to show "the movies you're mainly interested in. They wouldn't show The Hurt Locker, even after it won the Oscar. 

No. An interesting case is The Social Network. We just brought it back; they had it first-run. And we've done more business with it now than when they had it. The film's already on DVD. Now, granted, it's been on everyone's ten-best list. But people tend to look to the Nugget for quality entertainment. 

A lot of people have home theaters. We're not only competing with other theaters and other forms of entertainment, but my goodness, there are wonderful theaters in homes with high-definition picture and terrific sound. 

  

How often do you miss out on a film that you'd really like to show? 

It goes through stages. There are dry spells. I can remember I was very unhappy to lose the film "Up" two summers ago. Really unhappy! And I expressed my unhappiness to the Disney company about that. I think we would have done more business with it. Perfect film for the Nugget, with appeal to all ages. 

A couple times a year that might happen. Pretty much I know in advance that there are some films that are going to go the other way, and that's fine. 

How do you know how good a film is? Sometimes previews and advance talk can be deceiving. 

The way I put it is you can't always tell the best, because you can have a great director, great acting talent, and they can still have a misstep. But pretty much you can tell the bad ones. And usually, I can tell from the trailer. And the track record of the producer and director. If it's a bang-up action flim, a Vin Diesel kind of movie, you just know it's not right for us. 

I can also think of very few romantic comedies made in this era that are of any worth. Pretty much as a genre, that seems to have exhausted itself. Can you think of one? 

Well, there was a string of Hugh Grant films that were pretty good, until they got overly formulaic. 

Yeah. But that's a genre that seems to have exhausted itself, and needs an infusion of something new. 

Romantic comedies might pose a dilemma for the studios. They benefit from having top-level actors. But then, the budget gets big, and they want something bigger, noisier, and easier to sell in foreign markets. 

That's true. Yup. 

Something that's dialogue driven like the old Tracy/Hepburn movies or Cary Grant, is going to be a hard sell in Hollywood these days. 

Yeah. 

 

The Nugget has been such an asset and source of funds. But the film business keeps getting tougher and tougher. Is there a point, does it continue to decline, does it reach a balancing point? Are movies dying?

Sometimes I shake my head and wonder at some of the decisions. The shelf life of movies in theaters is so short. It used to be a half year before a movie went on DVD. Now, it's just a couple of months. 

Now, Warner Brothers and Disney are saying that this coming summer, films that open in early summer will be available on DVD as early as August. I mean, some theaters will still be playing those movies. 

If an early summer movie is a hit, it'll still be in theaters in August. 

Yeah, but even the biggest hits burn out in two or three weeks. Harry Potter was one of the most anticipated films of the year, and within three weeks it was dead. Particularly you have that summer burnout. The theater in Portsmouth has 15 screens. During the summer, a blockbuster film will open on five screens at once. And within two weeks, it's down to two screens.   

Of course, one can understand that with all the money it takes to promote a film, they want the ad campaign to drip over into the DVD release. 

The DVD and DVR market is a larger and larger piece of the pie.

Oh, absolutely. 

I must say, I'm not optimistic. But I've been worried about this for decades.

The industry keeps surviving wave after wave of new media. 

Yeah. Somehow, the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen with strangers is different than the home experience, which is where I think the real competition is now. I mean, it's so easy at home to get anything you want. Anything!

The on-demand channel has an area where you can search by topic, actor, director, or genre. So I picked John Ford. And there must have been 30 films by John Ford that I could get instantly!  

Then I thought, True Grit's playing at the movie theater; I happen to like the new version. But I'd like to see the old version. Can I get that? Click, click, True Grit, $2.95. 

People in society today aren't accustomed to waiting. They want that immediate satisfaction. Maybe that immediate satisfaction will save movie theaters, for that first two or three weeks when a film is only in theaters. But I'm not sure how long that's going to last, because film companies only get half the revenue from a theater. On demand, I'm willing to wager that they get a lot more than that. 

So it's not a business that I would be making an investment in myself right now. It's pretty scary. But on the other hand, my wife and I try go to the movies every week in Portsmouth, but we go less and less because there seem to be fewer interesting movies for adults. 

 

There seem to be fewer movies that get broad distribution. With digital technology, a lot of films are being made nowadays. You can make a good movie on a tiny budget. 

But who will see it? How will they know about it? 

 

Yes, it won't get out into the distribution channels. And things like Netflix and DVR and online, it's a much easier distribution process than trying to get Regal and Entertainment Cinemas and all those chains to show a film. 

Yeah, all they have to do is send a signal in. So I'm very curious. In some respects, I'm glad that I'm near the end of my career than the beginning. Because seeing movies in movie theaters, I grew up with that and I have a lot of nostalgia for that.  

 

If the Board of the Hanover Improvement Society came to you and said, 'Do you think we should get out of the business? Or should we spend a bunch of money to convert our other three screens to digital?' They have one digital screen right now. What would you say? 

Well, I would have a wait-and-see attitude. I think there needs to be more information. I'm neither pessimistic nor optimistic about the Nugget. I feel good that it's still on Main Street and helps the businesses. People like seeing movies there. And I know that there is still some cash that it nets out for the Hanover Improvement Society. Some years are better, and some are worse. But I do see that the future is a question mark. 

I'm sure most of the people in this town would feel terrible if the Nugget weren't there. It's one of the things that makes Hanover such a special place. 

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The story of the Nugget is a rich and fascinating one. If you'd like an overview, click on "My Blog" and check out the entry dated January 28, 2011. And watch for the finished article in an upcoming issue of Upper Valley Life Magazine.   


Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.