By Travis Weedon
“To watch ‘Dune’ on a television,” complained director Denis Villeneuve in an interview with Film Talk, “is to drive a speedboat in a bathtub.” James O’Hanlon, the owner of the Savoy Theater in downtown Montpelier, where “Dune” opened on Oct. 21, is inclined to agree. The prodigious scale of the film’s production — its vast deserts, stately spacecrafts, and sandworms with mouths the size of airplane hangars — is not likely to translate well on a screen only modestly larger than a microwave. Still, much to the dismay of the filmmakers and theater owners, Warner Bros. calculated a financial upside to releasing “Dune” on its streaming service, HBO Max, the same day the film opened in theaters.
The seemingly limitless library of film and television content now available at the click or two of a button, while convenient, represents a clear and present danger to the theater business. This existential threat should be doubly concerning to the people of Montpelier, as this relatively small city boasts not just one but two movie theaters, an embarrassment of cultural riches for a town of its size.
The last 18 months have not been easy on movie theaters, to put it mildly, and both O’Hanlon and Theron Cheney, the manager at the Capitol Theater on State Street, lamented that attendance has yet to return to pre-COVID levels. But business has been gaining a little steam of late.
The Capitol has had some success with the big studios’ recent franchise fodder. Last month, both “Venom 2: Let There Be Carnage” and Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, “No Time to Die,” brought in respectable earnings. But Cheney is still noticing a bit of pandemic trepidation when it comes to adult dramas outside of pre-existing intellectual property. “Before COVID,” he said, “people would take a chance and they might venture out for something they normally wouldn’t.” These days, if a film doesn’t have a familiar brand, it’s not attracting audiences.
One of last month’s biggest box office disappointments was the medieval sword-and-shield drama “The Last Duel,” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, and Ben Affleck. Despite the film’s impressive Hollywood pedigree, “The Last Duel” earned an abysmal $4.8 million dollars domestically on its opening weekend against a budget of over $100 million. The film itself is excellent; audiences just didn’t care enough to find out.
Looking ahead, Cheney is setting his sights on what works. The next chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe opens Nov. 5, and Cheney expects “The Eternals” to deliver those reliable comic book movie fans to the Capitol’s doors.
While the Capitol is banking on MCU turnout, O’Hanlon, down the street at the Savoy, courts a different audience entirely. “Dune” is doing well, despite competition from HBO Max, but “Dune” is the exception rather than the rule at the Savoy. As arguably the sole arthouse theater in the entire state of Vermont, the Savoy focuses less on mass appeal and more on niche curiosity. O’Hanlon explained, “We’re seeing success with smaller films that probably aren’t playing anywhere else in the state, and if they are, they’re probably on very limited runs.”
His bread and butter these days are obscure naturalist documentaries, such as “The Alpinist,” and “The Hidden Life of Trees,” both of which drove enough business to stick around for several weeks in October. Montpelier’s formidable artistic community also came out in force for “The Velvet Underground,” a new documentary about the avant-garde rock group from the late sixties. The documentary is currently available on Apple TV+, as well, but, like “Dune,” it’s a question of scale. Channeling experimental filmmaking techniques of the era, director Todd Haynes deploys split screens, breakneck montage, and a sonic barrage to capture the Warholian New York art-scene from which the band emerged. Only the big screen can really do the film’s conflagration of image and sound justice.
O’Hanlon is hoping “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s omnibus tribute to the New Yorker opening the first weekend of November, can hit the sweet spot between “Dune”’s blockbuster DNA and “The Velvet Underground”’s unapologetic arty-ness. After that comes Oscar season, and a host of prestige titles will be parading their award-worthy wares across the Savoy’s screens. “It’s always a good problem when we have more films available to us than we might have room to play,” chuckled O’Hanlon.
The films will be there. But will the audience?
Travis Weedon is a writer and film lover. Throughout the month of November, he is hosting a series on the British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at the Savoy Theater, Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m.