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New movie theater in York seeks different crowd

Small Star Art House on West Market Street opened in March showing first-run independent films and documentaries

For years, Patti Stirk and her movie-loving friends would pile into a car and drive an hour to Baltimore for dinner and a film or two at the Charles Theatre.

Stirk loved the eclectic mix of movies, but the York resident wondered why there wasn't a theater in York County showing documentaries and first-run independent films on a consistent basis.

Stirk solved the problem by opening Small Star Art House cinema in March. The theater is at 232 W. Market St. in York's WeCo district. Small Star shares the first floor of the building with York PA Stuff, an art gallery and shop that sells the work of York-area artists.

With just 22 seats and a schedule that shows movies Thursdays through Sundays, Small Star is dwarfed by the seven-day-a-week suburban movie palaces offering a dozen screens and the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

But Stirk sees Small Star as filling a need in York County for moviegoers who want a more intimate filmgoing experience and the kinds of movies the local multiplexes don't show.

You won't find "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" on Small Star's lone screen. Stirk's first offering was "King Georges," a documentary about chef Georges Perrier of Philadelphia's famed Le Bec-Fin restaurant.

"My goal is to show the films that are never going to come to Regal or Frank," Stirk said.

Big changes on the big screen

Movie theaters are a $16.9 billion business. While revenue is up, the industry is changing as it battles for customers against cable television and movie-streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.

In August, Regal Entertainment Group replaced each of the seats at its 13-screen cinema at West Manchester Town Center with recliners that have built-in footrests.

Two years ago, Frank Theatres at Queensgate Town Center in York Township changed from general admission to reserved seating. Patrons select their seat when they purchase tickets online or at the box office.

That accommodates groups of people that want to sit together and "saves people from having to come here early to get a good seat," said Matthew Kesten, the theater manager.

Meanwhile, the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center announced recently an extension of its Saturday night film series.

Catalyst for WeCo

In its less than two months in operation, Small Star has developed a following among film buffs like Ian Olney.

"It's a small space, it's very intimate, and the seating is very comfortable," said Olney, an associate professor of film studies at York College.

"There is a tremendous appetite in York for that kind of programming," he added.

On a recent First Friday, Dallastown residents Marilyn Daly and her husband Richard Daly went to Small Star to catch a 5:30 p.m. showing of "The Lady in the Van," which stars Maggie Smith.

Marilyn Smith, 66, a retired York College professor and her husband, a family practice doctor, planned to catch the movie and then have dinner at Esaan, a Thai restaurant downtown.

"We're making a whole night of it," she said.

Stirk has modest goals for Small Star.

She wants to turn a profit. She declined to say how much she invested to open Small Star, including how much she spent on a digital projection system.

Stirk is active in civic affairs. She serves on the board of directors of the Strand-Capitol and Downtown Inc, which promotes economic development in downtown York and events such as First Friday.

Stirk, who lives in the neighborhood, hopes Small Star will be a catalyst for attracting more people to WeCo and driving them to restaurants and shops throughout downtown. She's already got more than 600 people on the theater's email list.

Stirk is partnering with nearby York Blue Moon restaurant on a $50 movie-and-three-course-dinner package. York Blue Moon executive chef and co-owner Darrell Tobin has also added entrees to his menu that pair with the films Small Star is showing.

Tobin is hopeful that as Small Star becomes better known, it will mean more business for his restaurant, which is within walking distance of the cinema.

"I talk it up," he said.

Having only a single screen can be a challenge for a movie theater, especially one showing art house films that don't draw the same kind of large audience as a major Hollywood film, said Buzz Cusack, who owns the Charles Theatre in Baltimore.

If filmgoers aren't interested in the movie being shown, there aren't other films at the theater for them to choose from, said Cusack, whose cinema has five screens.

While Small Star has only one screen, Stirk has one advantage most theater owners don't have.

She doesn't have to worry about paying rent because she and her husband, York Water Co. CEO Jeff Hines, own the building.

Stirk's also been working to bring in revenue from sources other than tickets and sales at the concession stand. She's already had three separate groups come in and rent the theater for corporate meetings.

Stirk's plan is to continue to change the movie each week. She hopes one day to add a second screen to the theater, although she has no immediate plans.

"For now, we'll focus on making this one profitable," she said.

The movie industry by the numbers:

2015 revenue: $16.9 billion

2015 profit: $2.1 billion

Annual revenue growth 2010 to 2015: 2.5 percent

Indoor movie screens in the U.S. 39,579

Source: IBISWorld, National Association of Theater Owners

If You Go:

What: Small Star Art House shows first-run films and documentaries

Where: 232 W. Market St. in York

When: Films are shown Thursday through Sunday at 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m and 7:30 p.m. Check their website to confirm times.

Cost: $10

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