By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The owner of the Admiral Theater has a plan to ensure the historic landmark has a promising future as well as a storied past.
The first phase of that plan is already complete … creation of the plan itself.
“We have spent a lot of time and energy and money – what little that we have – to engage the services of an architect,” explained Jeff Brein, whose Far Away Entertainment owns the Admiral – the business, not the building itself, as well as seven other theaters in six towns around the region.
“We determined that in order to keep the theater going and to at least turn a profit, we need to make some changes in the basic business model. And that … takes the theater from its current two-auditorium, second-run format to a four-auditorium, first-run digital format.”
There’s really no choice, said Brein. The notion of a “second-run, dollar-house” theater is dying: “The studios are not providing us with the types of release schedules they used to. The window from theatrical first-run release to home video or cable TV or RedBox or whatever is becoming much more narrow.”
That’s not the only reason that a first-run moviehouse makes more sense for West Seattle: “It’s a great unserved market. If you want a first-run movie, you have to get in your car and travel well outside (West Seattle) – downtown, the airport, wherever people need to go.”
However, it’s not as easy as deciding to run new movies instead of not-so-new movies. First, Brein says, “you really need a minimum of three to four screens. And you need a facility that everybody is going to feel comfortable in.”
No matter how much you love the Admiral Theater, designated a city landmark 20 years ago – “comfortable” is not a word that comes to mind. “Overhaul” is.
Brein knows that. The Admiral’s devoted on-site general manager – his sister Dinah Brein – knows that.
So, they have a plan. They have an operating budget.
What they don’t have yet (and they stress they’re NOT asking for a handout or donations) is … the money.
“It’s going to cost us somewhere around $600,000 to do the improvements that are required,” explains Jeff Brein. That includes construction work to convert The Admiral into four auditoriums, with new seats, new carpeting, even some restoration of its historic murals, like this one over the concession area:
It’s been a two-auditorium moviehouse for 40 years.
And part of what needs to be done is not an option in any version of a scenario that involves operating The Admiral as a movie theater for the long run: “(The plan includes) new digital projectors – not an option for any theater. Film is going away by the middle of 2014 at the latest. If you don’t have digital projectors, you’re out of this business.”
Dinah Brein (above) can tell you what it’s been like to operate with film instead of digital – “building” each film from the bulky reels that arrive, dealing with problems if something goes wrong. As her brother says, the current projectors “are practically antiques.”
Same goes for much of The Admiral. She has dealt with furnace problems, clogged plumbing, even one problem that her husband had to go up on the moviehouse’s roof to try to troubleshoot. “I care about this place,” she told us, while keeping watch behind the refreshment counter one afternoon as the first moviegoers of the day started to trickle in. “It’s like a child.”
If only its physical components were child-like rather than old and creaky. Other improvements that are part of the plan – mandatory rather than an option, ultimately – include ADA-required work to better serve disabled moviegoers, particularly in The Admiral’s restrooms, which would add capacity.
Last but by no mean least, says Jeff Brein, who spoke with us in an extensive phone conversation fro Bainbridge: “We have an upstairs area that has a sizable heretofore-unused room we could convert into a party facilty or small screening room, or something folks could use for other activities.”
This isn’t a wish list – it’s gone as far as architectural specifications and schematics, as well as budgeting with contingencies. “Phase 1, preplanning, has been complete,” Brein declares. “Now we move to Phase 2 … which is, where are we going to get $500,000 or $600,000 to make this happen?”
If you don’t already know this, The Admiral’s ownership has no affiliation with a major chain or any other kind of deep-pocket company, though it’s gone through multiple types of ownership over its near-century in operation. Far Away Entertainment, founded in 1997, is a small Western Washington-based and owned company, with two theaters on Bainbridge – one of which is a renovated historic theater – and one each in East Bremerton, Oak Harbor, Anacortes, Stanwood, Ocean Shores, plus West Seattle. The company’s offices are on Bainbridge, but each theater has a management team based in its community (Admiral GM Dinah is a West Seattleite).
“We have been looking at a variety of approaches” to get funding, Jeff Brein explains. But “it is difficult and I would go as far as to say it is almost impossible to get any commercial bank to make a loan to a small business that has had a couple of years of less-than-desired profits, although (The Admiral) did turn a small profit last year. Banks are not loaning to small businesses in our business category. It’s disheartening and disappointing.”
At first glance, you might nod your head and think the theater’s “business category” does sound like a risky proposition – technology continues to make it ever more possible to watch a high-definition screening on a huge screen in your own home – but Brein says it’s not just about movies, though they will generate much more under the plan: “The projections for a four-screen first-run digital theater are night and day compared to what we are generating right now. The film income more than triples under this business model. We’re not looking at investing for a speculative venture – we’re confident this would be a profitable theater, would return its investment, and (be in) position for good growth.” Besides movies, they could show live events from sports to opera, which are staples in many theaters now.
But if banks aren’t going to help, who will? They have worked with the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development, seeking a share of Small Business Administration money that the National Development Council funnels through cities, “to keep businesses going and keep people employed.” Brein says it even got to the point where an NDC loan officer toured the theater – but then the possibility vanished, apparently because of the aforementioned profile of its past three years of finances – even considering those were recession years – and concern about the fact it’s a movie theater.
Since then, Brein had a meeting recently with City Councilmember (and West Seattle resident) Tom Rasmussen, who he describes as “very supportive.” Again, he stresses, they’re not looking for a handout – but more ideas on potential funding resources, “whether it might be a bank or an individual or some other entity, maybe an existing business … I don’t expect (the city) to hand us this money on a silver platter but they certainly have some influence in the community; they work with movers and shakers and we have got to continue to do everything we can do to shake the trees to see what falls out and try to make this thing happen.”
Other ideas that have been explored include “a couple of out-of-the-box options … perhaps the benefits of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit,” which wouldn’t change the need for the half-million-plus sum to overhaul The Admiral, but might facilitate “some smaller grants and programs.”
And he’s talked to possible strategic partners, even Sundance.
What they have NOT contemplated so far is a community fundraising drive, for two reasons, Brein says – for one, they realize there is still some lingering ill will over the short-lived donation drive by former theater ownership/management five years ago, which left “an audience victimized in the past … that had nothing to do with us.” (Brein, in fact, wound up back in charge of The Admiral because of what fell apart in 2008, as explained in our coverage at the time.)
And he has another reason: “The other reality is that we’re a for-profit company – it would be kind of like walking into Macy’s and seeing somebody with a bucket, asking for money so they can get more clothes to sell.”
That said, “nothing’s off the table … it may come to (community fundraising).” The money will have to come from somewhere: “We are hopeful that something will break through at some point.”
And he adds that failure is not an option: “We are really bound and determined to make this work. I have not on any level threatened to close the theater, I have not said if we don’t get X amount of money, we’re going to shut this down, that’s the last thing I’d want to do.”
Again, they don’t own the building. Brein says, “I have to give Marc Gartin, the landlord, credit for working with us. He’s even agreed to use the building as collateral if we were to go out and get some financing – that’s a major contribution on his part.” And he’s been “flexible on (the theater’s) rent.”
Though The Admiral is only one of his properties, Brein says, “I am working on this project every single day. … We’re not sitting back just waiting; we’re out there aggressively looking.”
And if you are a theater patron and have wondered why it’s so rundown, Brein says the overhaul has to be done all at once – piecemeal doesn’t work – because of constraints with the theater itself.
So why stick with it and not just walk away? we asked.
Brein said he realized his reply might sound sappy, but: “Once we got into this theater … we became very engaged and recognized how important the theater is to the community. … We also recognized this was not a candidate for us to go out and sell it to someone … we didn’t ever want to abandon it because we knew if we walked out the door, it was simply going to close. … We were entrusted with this.”
This is a script without an ending yet; rather than comparing The Admiral’s saga to a movie, Jeff Brein says it’s part of the “rollercoaster ride” he’s experienced in his company’s 16 years of operation. But he says a happy ending is very much possible: “I think we’ve done our homework and the numbers look good. I don’t think anybody can question the support and the adoration this theater has in the community.”
Now, there’s just a mystery to be solved – how will the plan get from Phase 1 to Phase 2?