Bellows Falls Opera House finances show improvement

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Opera House is getting closer to breaking even.

Town Manager Wendy Harrison said Thursday that while the town-run movie theater is projected to run a deficit, the deficit is getting smaller.

"We have projected expenses of $397,800," Harrison said in summing up the budget discussions about the theater. Income lags behind at $364,450, she said, but it is up substantially over the last fiscal year of approximately $316,000. She said the town adopted a "pretty ambitious" increase in revenue of $48,000.

She said the town increased some prices, mostly concession prices, in the past year, but not ticket prices. The town also increased the amount of the theater rental.

The Rockingham Select Board is in the process of reviewing the proposed town budget, which includes the town-run and town-owned movie theater, which is located in the town hall.

"So far we're on target," said Harrison, noting that the increases of the past year had improved the theater's bottom line.

"We don't want to raise prices," she said, adding that the theater's popular "Triple Up," the combination of popcorn, a soda and candy for $5, would remain at that price forever. "We will never raise that."

Rick Angers, the theater's manager, outlined various programs and improvements that have been launched in the past year, including expanding Classic Movie Night, launching a matinee during the week, and seeking additional sponsorships and advertising at the theater.

Harrison said the town has been more "strict" in sending invoices for the advertisements, which run on the screen for waiting theater goers before the main movie begins. "We're getting better at selling and invoicing," she said.

Angers said he has been more aggressive in reaching out for sponsorships for Classic Movie Night, as well. The sponsorships cover the cost of renting the old movie, with ticket sales coming directly to the town, along with concessions. Some film distributors won't lease classic movies to the the theater because it doesn't have a more sophisticated projector, he said.

The popularity of weekday matinees has been an eye-opener, Angers said, noting that he started a matinee this summer with the blockbuster "Lion King." He said the response for a recent afternoon screening for "Downton Abbey" was surprisingly strong.

It appeals, he said, to "the crowd that doesn't like to drive after dark."

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Harrison said the Opera House staff has consulted with merchants in the Square to minimize the impact of people taking up parking spaces, and the theater is encouraging parking in lots off the Square.

He also said that specialty concession items were helping to raise additional revenue.

Angers said Main Street Arts, which held two musicals at the Opera House this year, would be back in 2020, with the musical "Shrek."

Select Board member Stefan Golec said he doesn't want the Main Street Arts set building or other activities to interfere with town functions such as March town meeting. He said Main Street Arts would contribute between $10,000 and $11,000 in rental fees. "They are motivated to work with us," Angers said.

While "Chicago" was a moneymaker for both Main Street Arts and the Opera House, Harrison said "The Secret Garden" is more of "a risk."

Shannon Burbela, the town's finance director, said renting the Opera House to Main Street Arts "still makes sense for us." MSA pays the town for every day they are using the theater for staff time, whether it is building sets or holding events.

"If we need them to move, they move," Harrison added.

Harrison said the Opera House also hosted some music events as well, noting that "Eaglemania" was a success. "Eaglemania" attracted 300 people to downtown Bellows Falls on a Thursday night, which Anders called "fabulous."

Harrison said the town is working with the Bellows Falls Opera House Committee on issues facing the theater, including capital needs and improvements. The priority, she said, is supporting investment in things that make the theater "work better."

Possible improvements include a new 4K projector system (estimated at $75,000) and a new popcorn machine (between $12,000 to $15,000).

Harrison said she and Gary Fox, the town's development director, as well as the Opera House Committee, have talked about putting together an application for an arts grant. She said the partnership of public and private would be convincing.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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