The Varsity Theatre is located on the second floor of the Wilkinson Student Center on the campus of Brigham Young University. Some of the first films to show at the Varsity Theatre, when the Wilkinson Center opened in 1964, were “Don't Go Near the Water” and “The Wackiest Ship In the Army.” The theater has either 400 seats[3, 4] or 794 seats.
The Varsity Theatre served a niche market by offering edited version of R-rated films, something that was not available in commercial movie theaters. Brigham Young University is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which advises church members to not watch films with profanity, nudity, sexual innuendo, or excessive violence. 30 to 40 percent of movies shown at the Varsity were versions edited by the movie studios for airlines. A long-standing agreement with Swank Motion Pictures, a film distributor for colleges and universities, allowed a committee at BYU to edit the remainder of the films to comply with the school's moral code.[1, 2, 5, 7, 9]
“The Varsity Theatre was a good place to go to see movies that we normally wouldn't be able to see, and for that reason it was a very attractive proposition to a lot of people," said J. Grant Robinson, a sophomore.
The Varsity Theatre was so successful that students would line up hours before the box office opened and available seats were rare. In 1997, purchases were limited to six tickets per person.[2, 4, 7]
In 1994, the Varsity Theater pulled “Schindler's List” from its schedule after it was denied permission to edit out depictions of nudity and violence. The theater discontinued showing edited R-rated movies for several months but a student-initiated survey found that nearly 90 percent of students wanted the edited movies to return.[2, 7]
The Varsity Theater was always very open with distributors about its practice of editing films. In December 1997, Sony Pictures sent a letter to BYU asking them to stop editing its films. The Varsity Theatre complied, pulling all Sony films from its schedule. School officials contacted close to 10 major film companies, seeking written permission to edit films, but the universal answer was no. After Paramount Pictures ordered the Towne Cinemas in July 1998 to cease and desist from editing scenes out of “Titanic,” BYU decided to announce its new no-editing policy immediately rather than waiting for the beginning of the fall semester.[1, 2, 9]
The Varsity Theatre stopped showing edited movies effective 4 August 1998.
“Discussions with suppliers of films and film companies have made it clear that BYU will not be able to secure formal approval to continue editing films,” said Carri Jenkins, Director of Media Communications. “BYU will discontinue editing movies for the Varsity Theatre ... [and] will continue to exercise judgment and prudence in the choice of films that it shows on the BYU campus.”
By the new policy, which also applies to BYU-Hawaii and Ricks College, the Varsity Theatre will only show movies that meet BYU standards without editing. The Varsity Theatre Film Review Committee approves movies, which are usually rated G and PG, with a limited number of PG-13.[1, 5, 7]
Other area theaters, the SCERA Showhouse in Orem and the Regan Theater at the Utah Valley State College, stepped into the void and began showing versions of R-rated films edited for airlines.[3, 6]
Edited R-rated films had always attracted the largest audiences at the Varsity, and without them the theater, which received no funding from BYU, struggled financially. Admission prices were reduced in an attempt to draw crowds to classic films, but audiences proved fickle. In 2000, the Varsity Theatre began closing during the spring and summer terms, when most students are off campus. At the beginning of the fall semester in 2001, the Varsity stopped showing movies and was used for concerts, talent and comedy shows, and as a lecture hall.[4, 5, 7, 8]
Movies returned to the Varsity in 2005, after school administrators removed the requirement that the theater must recoup its operating expenses. Swank Motion Pictures charges $721 per movie, plus half of the box office proceeds. Even sellout crowds don't produce enough revenue to offset the cost, overhead, and wages for several employees. The goal now is to use the theater to enhance campus life. Movies show on one or two weekends a month, with no edited films.
"We're looking for movies that don't need to be edited, and we're finding some," said Ron Jones, campus-involvement coordinator. "Our purpose is to provide clean entertainment for our students. Rather than trying to make money with our films, we want to provide students with inexpensive choices for on-campus entertainment."
1. "Varsity Theatre to stop editing movies", 2think.org, 31 July 1998
2. "Curtain falls on edited films at BYU", Deseret News, 01 August 1998 , page A1
3. "UVSC heeding demand for edited movies", Deseret News, 17 September 1998 , page A1, Metro Edition
4. "Patrons proving fickle at Y. theater", Deseret News, 21 September 1998 , page B1, Metro Edition
5. "Varsity Theatre Stops Editing", Brigham Young Magazine, 01 October 1998
6. "SCERA to show edited R-rated movies", Deseret News, 04 September 1999 , page B6
7. "BYU closing movie theater for first time in 30 years", Deseret News, 05 April 2000 , page B04, Metro
8. "BYU's movie theater closes after 37 years", Daily Herald, 04 September 2001
9. "Varsity making comeback with clean flicks", Deseret Morning News, 23 February 2005