Cinema success story: After 25 years, couple has built a local movie monopoly
Mike and Barbara Getz have peace of mind because they monopolize the movie theater market in western Nevada County, but their comfort does not stem from the reason you might expect.
“We used to stress out over whether United Artists would outbid us for the big movies,” Barbara Getz said.
“People would stop you on the street and ask, ‘Are you going to get the next Harry Potter movie?'” Mike Getz added. “We don’t have that stress now.”
Western Nevada County’s movie moguls are not to be confused with the typical operators of theaters, faceless corporations that use an accountant’s gimlet eye to book movies and that buy their popcorn by the ton and soft drinks by the barrel.
The Getzes have spent 25 years patiently building the Nevada Theatre Film Series and acquiring Sutton Cinemas, Sierra Cinemas and now the Del Oro Theatre, fueled by their love of movies and desire to live in the area.
But owning all of the full-time commercial movie screens in the area is hardly a trip down the Hollywood red carpet. They still have to deal with movie distributors, the growing threat of film piracy, and making sure the snack bars are stocked with Sour Patch Kids candy.
And after more than 40 years in the industry, Mike Getz freely admits he still can’t figure out which movies will be hits and which ones will flop.
Mike Getz has been in the business since he graduated from college and went to work for an uncle who owned a theater in Columbus, Ohio. He moved to Los Angeles in 1963 to work for his uncle and developed a career programming midnight movies for theaters.
He continued to work as a programmer when he moved to Grass Valley in 1968 and began presenting programs at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City in 1979.
“There wasn’t anything going on then,” said Barbara, who met Mike in 1971. “We wanted to show movies you could only see then in San Francisco.”
They started with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which was a success, and followed with an Ingmar Bergman film festival. The film series has been going strong ever since.
The Getzes acquired Sierra Cinemas in 1989, Sutton Cinemas in 2001, and the Del Oro last December, which involved the purchase of one of the largest buildings in downtown Grass Valley.
“We had been interested in the theater for many years, but the owners always wanted too much money,” Mike Getz said. “It was finally available at a reasonable price. It’s a key building in downtown Grass Valley.”
But it was also a building that had been largely neglected for several years. Since purchasing the theater, the Getzes have painted the exterior, restored the main theater’s art deco murals and upgraded practically every part of the facility.
The public will get to view the fruits of their labors Thursday when the neon sign on the Del Oro’s tower will be lit for the first time in more than 15 years. Festivities are from 5:30 to 8 p.m., with the lighting scheduled for 7.
The Getzes attribute part of their success to adjusting to the needs of the local market. Because the county’s population is older than the state average, they’ve eliminated late-night shows Monday through Thursday and scheduled matinees those days.
Family movies are their most popular attractions, with R-rated films a tougher sell. “We try to program something for everybody,” Barbara Getz said.
While the Getzes control the local market, they still have to deal with the distributors who decide where Hollywood’s output is shown.
“It’s a matter of negotiations,” Mike said. “We’re considered a good customer. We pay our bills on time.”
Like all theater operators, they have to take their share of films they’d rather not show in order to get the big movies the public wants to see. That can be expensive.
Distributors typically lease films to theater operators, collecting a percentage of box office receipts.
First they negotiate a house allowance, or “nut,” a set figure to cover the basic expenses of the theater. Once the nut is covered, the distributor takes a percentage of the box office money – as high as 90 percent in some cases.
That’s why popcorn, candy and soda pop sales are so important to the viability of a theater.
“The only thing we have control over is the snack bar,” Barbara Getz said.
Of course, figuring out which movies will fill the seats is still more of an art than a science. Even after decades of watching films, the Getzes are surprised on a regular basis.
Some recent films illustrate the point. “Napoleon Dynamite” and “What the Bleep Do We Know?,” two films that received little promotion, have done well in Grass Valley. “Open Water,” a big budget film, sank without a trace.
Barbara Getz said word-of-mouth, along with Internet chat rooms, have a lot to do with the success of a movie.
“I like movies that break away,” Mike Getz said. “The ones that I like the most are the ones that are different.”
The film industry is watching the digital revolution and the piracy opportunities that accompany it with a wary eye, particularly after the experience of the music recording industry.
Mike Getz said theaters need a six-month window between the time a film appears and it’s available in other formats to make a profit, but he’s confident the industry has a bright future.
“The Baby Boomer generation grew up on movies, and they’re still going,” he said. “There’s something about the big screen you can’t get elsewhere.”
So what are people eating these days at movie theaters? Here are the three most popular candies at the Grass Valley theaters:
1. Sour Patch Kids
2. Red Vines licorice
3. Junior Mints
Source: Mike and Barbara Getz
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