Craven: Selling the Savoy

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(HOST) For commentator, filmmaker, and Marlboro College teacher Jay Craven, the recent announcement of changes at Montpelier’s Savoy Theater has a special resonance.

(CRAVEN) Within weeks of my moving to Vermont in 1974, an acquaintance told me about what appeared to be the most popular cultural activity within a hundred miles – Rick Winston’s Lightning Ridge film series in Montpelier.  

Back then, the weekly drive down Route 2 from St. Johnsbury seemed like a big deal – but I traveled it with friends in a red ’68 VW bus to Rick’s movies nearly every Friday night.  And there I sat in an ancient Montpelier school auditorium packed with mostly baby boomers in their 20’s and 30’s, watching 16 millimeter prints of Fellini’s "8½," John Ford’s "The Searchers," and Rick’s personal favorites, "Casablanca" and "Children of Paradise."  

I established St. Johnsbury’s Catamount film series a year later, in 1975. That’s all another story – except for how Rick’s Lightning Ridge series inspired me to embrace what Winston so passionately demonstrated as exemplary and compatible notions of community and culture.

In 1981 Rick took a huge leap: he established his Savoy Theater as a full-time movie venue.  

Sadly, Rick and his wife Andrea Serota have announced that, after 37 years in the movie business, they are selling the Savoy.  There’s apparently interest, but no buyer yet – and Rick and Andrea’s announcement makes clear that it’s a challenge to turn a profit as a single-screen art house in Vermont.

Indeed, the Savoy has struggled for years with the shifting ground in film exhibition.  Shortly after it opened, home video was born.  Also, pressure mounted to abandon repertory film screenings and book current releases by a new crop of maverick distributors that needed the art houses to program and nurture smaller pictures like  Mira Nair’s "Salaam Bombay" and Atom Egoyan’s "Exotica."  Still, when these same companies released high-octane indies like "The Piano," and "Pulp Fiction" – they often scrambled to make deals with multi-plexes, denying art houses the income and new audiences they needed to offset the smaller pictures.  

Still, whatever battles were raging within the movie business, Vermont filmmakers could always count on the Savoy to book our latest films and deliver its devoted audience.

Perhaps Montpelier’s Savoy will become a non-profit – and continue to do what Rick and Andrea and their staff have been doing for years, building film culture and serving as a community center where people come together around cinema and ideas.  Indeed, in a nation of tiny arts grants and limited access to professional performing arts, film inexpensively transports audiences into other times and places for an infinite range of characters and stories rendered by world-class artists.

Many challenges loom.  Not the least of these tests is how to expand audiences and attract young people and even schools to take advantage of this vast resource of cultural film – programmed and pioneered for nearly four decades in Montpelier at the Savoy.

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