Screenland Armour gives film a local flavor

06/24/2014 8:47 AM

06/25/2014 1:38 PM

Adam Roberts has spent the past two years trying to drum up support for the local film scene in Kansas City. And now, the 27-year-old independent filmmaker is hoping to shine a light on the plight of independent movie houses across the United States.

“We support local artists and shops. There’s this big organic food push. But people don’t really do that with movie theaters,” said Roberts.

He and Robert Hoops have spent the past four months filming “Now Showing,” a documentary that takes viewers behind the screen to learn about the movie industry from the perspective of an independent cinema owner. The movie, like Roberts, is centered on Kansas City.

“There’s a reason why major chains are here,” Roberts said. “Kansas City loves movies. We have a wealth of film here and really talented filmmakers that I don’t think the rest of the country perceives Kansas City as having.”

When the movie wraps this fall, Roberts will be like every other indie director — he’s hoping to see his work on the big screen. But unlike every other director, he just so happens to own two screens. And come August, the number will have doubled to four.

Roberts and his partner (and brother-in-law) Brent Miller, 26, are the owners and operators of the Screenland Armour in North Kansas City. This September will mark two years that they’ve been at the helm of the independent theater launched by Butch Rigby (who still retains the rights to the name and owns the building). And in two months, they’ll begin operating their second property — the Screenland Crossroads, the new theater under construction in the former Kansas City Star circulation building at 1701 McGee St. A third Screenland is currently in operation at Crown Center.

“These guys understand what it means to be in the small, independent film world,” Rigby said of Roberts and Miller. “They are showmen. They really understand the ballyhoo as it has always worked in the film business. They are bright, smart young businessmen who learn really quickly.”

There has been a marquee in front of 408 Armour Road since 1928. Then it was known simply as the Armour. Over time, the theater in North Kansas City shifted from a movie house to the Paradise Theatre, which held live stage performances. The movies returned in 2008, when Rigby renovated and reopened the theater as part of his Screenland brand.

Nearly four years later, Rigby’s theater was searching for an identity when Roberts and Miller began hosting trivia once a week in the Northland cinema. The lobby was decorated in the style of a classic movie house, something that wasn’t resonating with the crowd drawn in by the pair of millenials. When the previous operator decided to leave the business, Roberts and Miller approached Rigby about running the Screenland.

Roberts initially focused on the movies that the theater was showing. He renamed October “Shocktober” and screened 20 different horror films. He switched gears in November with a series devoted to Alfred Hitchcock movies.

“The worst thing that happened was (Rigby) would take it back,” Roberts said. “I just wanted to find our audience.”

And they did. A pumpkin carving contest drew 100 people, and the crowds began staying to play the vintage arcade games in the lobby. The décor shifted toward geek cool with artist renderings of “Star Wars” and “Raising Arizona” characters.

“This is my 15-year-old self’s dream. This is where I would want to be every day,” said Roberts.

The movie lineup is constantly in flux, as Roberts and Miller make an attempt to appeal to fans of blockbusters and cult classics. At times, it can make for odd pairings on the two screens.

“One night we had ‘Nymphomaniac’ on one screen and ‘Captain America’ right next door to each other,” Roberts said. “People had no idea what’s being shown 30 feet from them.”

As the décor and screen lineup shifted, Roberts and Miller tried to find something else that could make them stand out. In November 2012, Roberts and Miller essentially opened a craft beer bar inside the theater. The 10 bottles of beer behind the bar mushroomed into 100 different bottles.

“What they’re doing with craft beer is amazing. I think they’ve helped laid the foundation to where North Kansas City folks expect good craft beer,” said Bryce Schaffter, owner of the Cinder Block Brewing Co.

In the past 18 months, Cinder Block and the Big Rip Brewing Co., a pair of microbreweries, have opened in North Kansas City. Grains to Glass, a homebrewing supply store and bottle shop that allows customers to drink a bottle of beer at the bar or take one home, relocated from the Crossroads to North Kansas City as well. Schaffter sees the burgeoning craft beer movement as part of a larger transition.

“The theater is a craft theater,” Schaffter said. “They offer unique features and services that we needed in the area. It draws a completely unique crowd downtown.”

Miller and Roberts, who have known each other for a dozen years, had once talked about opening a bar. They just never imagined it would be in a movie theater.

“I like the idea that this is a place where you can sit at the bar and talk about what you just watched,” Roberts said.

Their initial success led Rigby to sign them to a five-year owner operator agreement. But while they had found their audience, they weren’t sure they’d be able to deliver the experience they wanted for much longer. In the fall and winter of 2012, the Screenland Armour was still showing movies on 35-millimeter film. The industry was shifting toward digital, and the film catalog available on actual film was shrinking.

In order to upgrade the theater’s projectors, Roberts and Miller would need $118,000.

“We didn’t have that kind of money,” said Roberts. “We had no idea where we could get $25,000 for a down payment.”

Enter Kickstarter, the online crowdfunding platform that has played a pivotal role in the recent revival of the theater. The two owners asked for $25,000 in March 2013. And when the campaign ended a month later, they had raised $30,231.

“I don’t know how else we could have done that,” Roberts said of the shift to digital. “It would be impossible for a theater like us to exist without the support of the community.”

With the funding in place for the digital conversion, Roberts and Miller got back to the art of promotion. Screenings turned into events. They created watch parties around popular television shows. They dialed up directors for a live chat with the audience via Skype. They had B-Bop Comics build a pop-up comic shop for a recent showing of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

And they began throwing festivals. Panic Fest, a celebration of horror and science fiction films, was held for the first time in January 2013. For the event, the theater partnered with local horror website DownRight Creepy.

“It’s been very collaborative,” said DownRight Creepy’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Canton. “They were easy to work with and instrumental in making Panic Fest happen.”

The second Panic Fest, held the weekend that bridged January and February this year, drew nearly 1,000 fans. Canton believes the crowd at the Northland theater has grown organically, drawn in by series showcasing short films and local talent.

“It’s a social club. If you go back, you’ll see a lot of the same faces,” Canton said. “Rather than just have dinner first and go watch a movie, you can do it all in one place.”

While the concept of dinner and a movie under one roof is a familiar one today, it wasn’t a decade ago. The original Crossroads theater opened at 1656 Washington St. in 2004. At the time, the theater was a novelty — reclining leather seats, a full bar and fare more likely to be found in a restaurant than a movie house. Just shy of its 10th anniversary, a proposed hike in the rent led Jason Chafee, the proprietor at the time, to shutter the doors on Washington Street in May 2013.

The new Crossroads theater — slated to open Aug. 1 — will have a pair of screens, as well as an attached bar. The menu will feature a take on Southern California burrito shops, while the bar will be an homage to the 1960s. It will offer seat-side service in one of the screens. And Miller and Roberts were Rigby’s first choice to run the new operation. They inked a separate five-year contract on the space.

“They’re honest businessman,” Rigby said. “And the fact that they work 70 hours a week doesn’t hurt.”

The duo has a vision for how the two theaters might work together. The men plan to launch a rewards program where moviegoers can earn free tickets, and let each theater develop its own identity. The Crossroads spot might lean toward grittier, independent films, while Armour would continue to show both retro and mainstream flicks.

Roberts also has plans for a movie crawl, which begins with a limited release brew and film at the Crossroads location. Those on the crawl would then be bused up to the Armour spot for a second beer and film before being dropped back at the Crossroads.

“A lot of our customers (at the Armour) are from Waldo and Westport,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to figure out how to tap into the Parkville market and let people know there’s a local theater in the Northland.”

In the hopes of drawing in the locals, they’re overhauling the menu at the Armour in the next month. Roberts was inspired by a trip to New York City, where he noticed that bars wouldn’t have a kitchen, but they could still make a great grilled cheese with a sandwich press.

“I love cheese and meat. It’s what goes well with beer,” said Roberts. “This was something quick and simple and different for the area.

They’ll have four to six grilled cheese offerings, as well as a selection of craft beef jerky. He’s partial to a strawberry bruschetta grilled cheese with Gouda and balsamic vinegar, while Miller is a fan of the cinnamon French toast that comes topped with bacon.

Changes to the menu are just part of what Roberts sees as a constant challenge to attract new faces and keep customers loyal. Even with the arrival of multiplexes like Cinetopia in Overland Park’s Prairiefire development and AMC’s recent push to overhaul its menu and seating, Roberts still believes that the Screenland can stand out.

“The big chains have a plastic experience. There’s no personality to it. We’re a little bit quirky and weird and everything’s not going to be perfect,” Roberts said. “The humungous multimillion-dollar theaters are so different than what we offer. We have that old-school experience, just a new sensibility.”

For Rigby, it’s the connection that he’s seen between Roberts, Miller and the audience over the past two years that will ensure the future of the Screenland.

“During the Great Depression, it was all the glories of the world for 10 cents. Now, it’s all that comfort, but it’s also about being a social place,” Rigby said. “Movies are about the shared experience. It’s a social gathering or fun event.”

A little over a third of a mile west, Schaffter has watched North Kansas City come to life since opening Cinder Block last October.

“I think they changed the perception of the businesses that were in downtown,” Schaffter said of Roberts and Miller. “Their focus is on the next generation of what’s going to keep North Kansas City growing, and I think that’s a really positive thing to see.”

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