Save the Ritz Theatre!
Gallery: The Ritz Theatre [7 Images] Click any image to expand.
By Rachel Scoggins
Photos by Beau Gentry
Stepping into the Ritz Theatre in Thomaston is like stepping into the past. The historic movie theatre, located on the courthouse square in the old downtown area, has been a part of the Thomaston community since 1927.
At the time it was built, there were five theatres in the town, including a drive-in, but now the Ritz is the only one left. The Ritz is a single-screen theatre that seats 400 people. Viewers can sit downstairs, or if they are 21 or older, they can take advantage of the special VIP area upstairs. The balcony has stadium seating, but with the added luxury of counters in front of the rows of seats. This area allows patrons a full “dinner and a movie” experience—instead of just typical movie concessions, movie watchers can get dinner from the café and comfortably eat it upstairs while they enjoy the movie.
Since 1927, the Ritz has had only three owners. The Odom family owned the theatre from 1927 until around 1990; John Cox owned it from 1990 to 1997; and then in 1997, the current owners, Malcolm and Amy Neal, purchased the Ritz. When the Neals bought it, the interior and exterior of the building were in bad shape; some of the equipment was still from the 1940s-1950s, with bad picture and terrible sound. The Neals renovated the inside of the theatre, installed new equipment such as the projector screen and sound system, and replaced many other important parts.
Most of the money for renovations was spent on the inside, so the outside is still in need of renovating. “We’ve been fighting a battle that most historic buildings do...where to spend what little funds are available,” Malcolm said. “It’s an ongoing process with any old structure. Where do we use the money? The roof, the paint, air conditioner, or something else?”
Now, the Ritz Theatre is facing an even bigger problem. A few years ago, movie studios began discontinuing 35 mm film and going over to digital projection. This saves money for studios because they do not have to spend the money to print 35 mm films anymore. “The panic was on,” Malcolm stated. “Theatre owners thought they had to ditch all the old equipment to stay in business.”
Most theatres are all-digital now, and several hundred small theatres are stuck trying to raise what, for them, is a lot of money. The price of converting one screen is $75,000, which includes the digital projector, the sound system, and the screen. This cost can be daunting for a small-town theatre that is just breaking even. Big multiplexes have more access to funds such as the Virtual Print Fee (VPF), the fee paid to the theatre by the studios for showing digital movies and aimed towards the purchase of digital projectors. Most small-town theatres did not qualify for the VPF because of the terms, which were based on number of movies shown and the number of showings.
In Georgia, three single-screen theatres operate on a full time basis: The Bacon Theatre in Alma, which closed for a while until it reopened in 2012; The Zebulon Theatre in Cairo; and The Ritz Theatre in Thomaston. “We don’t have a lot of people coming to the movies like in a big town,” Malcolm said. “That’s why there’s not a lot of small town theatres. People are going to the bigger ones.” These small theatres are not only competing with large multiplexes, but they are also fighting for the 35 mm films that are still made. Some movies are not even released in that format anymore, so small theatres are finding it difficult to find films to show on their screens. “We need something big to happen,” Malcolm said. “If we don’t get to change over to digital by the end of the year, we may have to close.”
The Ritz had to close for two weeks in September because there were no 35 mm films available for them to show. The theatre cannot even show old, classic films because they also have been converted to digital format. Malcolm said, “It’s almost coming to the point where the small town theatres can’t survive without digitizing.”
The Ritz Theatre has been hosting fundraisers for 18 months in an effort to raise the funds for the new projector; however, they are only halfway along to the cost of the projector. The theatre has held car washes, Zumbathons, bake sales, and even rock-and-roll shows. “We can raise money,” Malcolm said, “but it’s going very slowly because it is in such little amounts.” A silent and live auction, rock shows, and 5Ks are in the works for the future, but the theatre is trying to think of ways to raise more money fast. “If we had five years to go, we could keep going with fundraisers, but the studios are not waiting for us,” says Malcolm.
The Ritz is open seven days a week. It shows one movie a night at 7 p.m. and a matinee on Sundays at 2 p.m. Movies cost $6 for all ages, and concessions are half the price of those at the multiplex. In addition to being affordable entertainment, seeing a show at the Ritz includes the ambience of a nearly century-old theatre. The building was built in the 1920s, during the era of silent movies accompanied by live music from the orchestra pit, so it has great acoustics.
“Once you’ve been to the Ritz, it’s a whole different experience than going to a multiplex,” Malcolm claimed. “Come to the Ritz Theatre and see what it’s like to see a movie in a real movie palace. Come thirty minutes south instead of north, and find a theatre that gives you a completely different way to see a movie.”
The Ritz Theatre's 24-hour movie information line is 706-647-7022. For additional information about the Ritz, call 706-647-5372 (evenings only).