Future could hold a theater district in downtown

January 6, 2013 

The Olympia Film Society, proud owners of the historic Capitol Theater in downtown Olympia, enters the new year with a revamped board of directors, a significant film technology challenge and a need to broaden its support in the community for the long haul.

None of the problems are insurmountable for the nonprofit that formed the film society in 1980, began leasing the 770-seat vintage theater in 1990 and purchased it in September 2010. But they are enough to keep the small paid staff and cadre of volunteers plenty busy thinking of new ways to strengthen their organization, raise money and connect with a public that extends beyond the art-house, counterculture crowd.

Purchase of the theater built in 1924 was a major accomplishment for the film society. It was a longtime dream come true for the 1,400 film society members who support the feature films, film documentaries, stage acts and musical events that keep the theater humming. Overnight, their monthly mortgage payment on the $388,000 purchase was less than the rent they used to pay to the previous owners.

But with ownership of an old building comes a long list of deferred maintenance projects, any combination of which could match or exceed the film society’s $440,000 annual operating budget.

It’s no secret that the theater needs some major upgrades, especially the seating and the heating, air conditioning and ventilation system. It takes a dedicated patron to sit in the lumpy seats and stuffy summer, chilly winter conditions inside the theater.

The building also needs bathroom plumbing repairs, a fire-sprinkler system that could cost as much as $269,000, a new second-floor fire escape at a cost of roughly $15,000 and some additional emergency lighting to improve safe exit in the case of a fire, earthquake or some other disaster.

These are all necessary improvements to keep the theater viable into the future.

Recently, there have been allegations circulating in the community via email and video that the theater has serious fire and building code violations. But according to city building and fire officials, the theater meets the fire and building code for a structure its age.

Again, that’s not to say there isn’t room for safety improvements. But there’s no indication that the building is a fire trap in violation of city codes.

A pressing problem facing the Olympia Film Society is the need to acquire a digital projector to augment the 35-millimeter film projectors it has relied on for decades. The major film producers have put the independent film houses such as the Capitol Theater on notice that new films will be digital-only, beginning this year.

A digital projector costs upward of $80,000, no small capital outlay for the Olympia Film Society.

The film society is about to embark on a fund-raising campaign with a goal of $400,000 for the digital projector, new seating, upgraded restrooms and other improvements.

Details of the capital campaign aren’t available just yet. But it’s paramount that the film society develop a multi-pronged approach to raise money, including an appeal for donations, new members, a grant writing effort and some additional thinking outside the box.

Perhaps this is the time to breathe some life into the idea of a theater district in downtown Olympia, combining the collective allure of the Capitol Theater, State Theater, which is home to Harlequin Productions, and the Washington Center for the Performing Arts.

These three theaters provide much of the cultural and entertainment value found downtown. The community needs to show its support in as many ways as possible.

For more information about the Olympia Film Society, including how to join, donate or volunteer, visit olympiafilmsociety.org.

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