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Central Pa.'s indie theaters help each other

An independent film theater, Small Star Art House, will open Friday on West Market Street with the fanfare of a First Friday ribbon cutting.

The 22-seat micro theater screening room in the city's WeCo neighborhood will show small-budget, independently produced movies, owner Patti Stirk said.

"I was looking for something that brought people into the community more often, at different times and to fill the energy of WeCo," Stirk said.

While Small Star will be York's first independent theater, there are two others in central Pennsylvania — Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg and Zoetropolis in Lancaster.

The three separate businesses have explored ways to work together, Stirk said, noting co-marketing ideas for the "indie" theaters located about 30 miles from one another.

"They've been really collegial," Stirk said. "We're all in this together, trying to be a voice in this giant industry where the small guys get lost. They've been genuinely helpful."

As Small Star embarks on its inaugural season, Midtown Cinema is preparing to celebrate 15 years in the business this November.

"We go to great lengths to have a much more personal interaction with our patrons," said Adam Porter, director of operations at Midtown Cinema.

A membership program Porter had hoped would garner a couple hundred people has soared beyond 2,000, he said.

One family told Porter they drove to Harrisburg from the Poconos to see a particular film. "We really fill a niche that megaplexes don't think they can or haven't clued into yet," Porter said. "Either way it works out well for us."

An indie film is one typically produced without big budgets, big movie companies and big stars. You're that likely going to see Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger on Small Star's screen, Stirk said.

Larger theaters show movies aimed at mass appeal, explained Cheila Huettner, co-owner of Zoetropolis in Lancaster. "Ours are more specialized. You're getting more specialized programming and more quality programming — movies that are made with more passion, intensity and maybe artistic execution rather than blockbusters made for merely entertainment."

With three screens, Midtown is larger than Small Star. Zoetropolis, which opened in the late 1990s, has one screen, but substantially more seats than Small Star, holding about 75 moviegoers. The theaters are cozy, with some doubling as art galleries. Zoetropolis is also a yoga studio and a place for live performances, Huettner said.

Midtown, which is neighbors with Zero Day Brewing, offers BYOZ, whereby movie patrons can bring a Zero Day beverage into the theater, Porter said.

Deciding what to show comes down to timing. While some patrons will travel far and wide to see a film, other people prefer to stay in town, Porter said, noting that his business likes to share information with their audiences.

If you missed a film at Midtown, Zeotropolis could have it, Porter said of the cross-promotion collaboration that Stirk is so excited about.

"We don't see each other as a threat," Huettner said. "We see it as another way to support each other. It's so much better for businesses to work together with someone in your field rather than fight against something that could be a real prosperous partnership."

Finding economies of scale will keep the theaters healthy, and that's a win for everybody, said Stirk, who hopes to be turning people away from her small theater.

The independent theater business is a blast for Porter. He compared it to clothing retail. "If you're a clothing retailer trying to keep your inventory fresh and exciting every week, good luck; that's hard," he said. "We're blessed to know we're getting something new each week. We know we can't be everything to everyone, but we have such a wide variety of content, at some point throughout the year you will find something you want to see."

Lobbying for a film

If a theater doesn't have your desired flick, Porter suggested visiting, which allows users to essentially lobby a theater to get a film. Once the theater approves a request, the website determines how many tickets will need to sell to profit. If that threshold is met by a predetermined deadline, the screening happens, Porter said.

The theaters

Zoetropolis, 315 W. James St., Lancaster; 717-874-0526

Showing: "Lady in the Van," "45 Years"

Midtown Cinema, 250 Reily St., Harrisburg; 717-909-6566

Showing: "Where to Invade Next," "Son of Saul," "The Lady in the Van"

Small Star Art House, 232 W. Market St., York; 717-891-6509

Showing: "King Georges"

Majestic 25 Carlisle St., Gettysburg; 717-337-8200

Showing: "A War," "Son of Saul," "Where to Invade Next"