Carmike Sells the Villa?

On 8 August 2000, Carmike Cinemas filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.  Carmike, along with Cineplex Odeon and Reel Theaters who also filed for bankruptcy, suffered financially from the multiplex building trend that has recently swept the industry.

In the fall of 2000, two Salt Lake area theaters leased by Carmike were closed and the Villa was put up for sale.  Consolidated Theaters reopened the Plaza theater (originally the Mann 6) as a discount theater in spring 2001.  The Creekside theaters (originally Mann 5-6-7) by Cottonwood Mall are still vacant.

On the week of 28 May 2001, the Enterprise, a weekly business newspaper, published a front-page story titled "Carmike wants to sell Villa Theatre for $2.4 million."  The article said that Carmike planned to sell the theater to a local businessman and that "should there be any competing offers, they will be considered May 30 in the New York City offices of Carmike's bankruptcy counsel.  A hearing to approve any sale will be held the following day."  The sale apparently fell through by November, because of restrictions on the property.

If the Villa Theatre is sold it seems unlikely that its new owner would want to run it as a movie theater.  The Villa has outlived all other first-run single screen theaters in Salt Lake by over 10 years, and in today's market it seems difficult for any theater with less than 12 screens to stay open.

"'No one's going out and building a single-screen theater -- it's just not cost-effective,'' said Philip Smitley, assistant vice president for Carmike Cinemas, which owns 2,700 screens in 36 states, including 55 along the Wasatch Front. The only single-screen houses left are relics, like Salt Lake's Villa or Provo's Academy (both owned, by the way, by Carmike).  Even the six- or eight-screen multiplex of a few years ago is too small. These days, it's double digits -- 14 or 16 or even 24 -- or it's nothing."[1]

In 1989, the 1173-seat Centre theater in downtown Salt Lake was demolished to make way for a 13-story office building and a 6 screen theater.  The 800-seat Regency theater changed to a discount theater shortly after and was later remodeled into an office building.

"The Villa is another theater whose days could be numbered. With almost 1,000 seats and a 70-foot-wide screen, the Villa has been the place to see the 'Indiana Jones' movies and other blockbusters. While it still attracts a crowd, the grand dame has been looking rundown in recent years, leading to more speculation that it will join the Centre and Regency as movie palaces to bite the dust.  'The Villa still outgrosses other theaters showing the same film,'' says Mr. Tella, obviously fond of the theater he once managed. 'But over the long haul, it is a dinosaur. When you consider operating expenses, a single-auditorium facility is unrealistic.'''[2]

Four years after this article was written, Carmike Cinemas renovated the Villa, restoring the theater to most of its former glory.  Despite Carmike's commitment to the theater, attendance at the Villa has declined.

There are just too many screens in the Salt Lake area.  Since 1998, three large multiplexes have been built and a fourth should be complete this fall.  These four theaters alone have added 67 screens.  In about the same time period, 34 older screens have closed and not reopened.

In an article on the closing of the Centre Tehatre, Chris Hicks of the Deseret News wrote, "Smaller theaters can still gather some of that special magic that comes from sitting in a darkened room surrounded by strangers watching images flicker on a huge screen, but 1,000 people all sharing and emotion is certainly more invigorating than 500 or 200 or 20.  It's sad to see the Centre leave because that's one less such showplace in Salt Lake City.  And because it perhaps marks the end of an era.  And it's one step closer to all of Salt Lake's cardboard cutout crackerbox theaters being the rule rather than the exception."[3]

Part of the building craze that has caused so many theater chains to go bankrupt has been a push for large auditoriums, stadium seating, and large curved screens - all features that the Villa has had for over 40 years.  The new movie theaters of today are trying to recapture the glory of the past.  The Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons has even gone as far as to line the theater lobby with building fronts that resemble downtown Salt Lake of years past.  The auditoriums are grouped together under marquees bearing the names of long-gone Salt Lake theaters, such as the Centre.

With all this trend towards the grand movie palaces of the past, it would be a shame if we lost the genuine article.  The Villa is the most unique theater in Salt Lake, and it's in almost perfect condition.  It's completely and totally irreplaceable.  If it closes, we will never see another theater like it ever again.

1. "Multiplex destiny", Salt Lake Tribune, 19 July 1998, page D1
2. "At the Movies; What Plays in Utah", Salt Lake Tribune, 16 August 1992, page E1
3. "Centre Theater Is Closing Its Doors", Deseret News, 22 January 1989, page E10