A talk with Judy Halpert
By Scott Douglas
Together with her husband, Steve, Judy Halpert owns The Movies on Exchange, Portland’s only single-screen movie theater. The Halperts have owned and run the theater, which features independent and foreign films, since 1980. The theater’s Web site is at moviesonexchange.com.
The Bollard: One of the things I’m curious about is Portland’s taste in movies and how your theater fits in with other theaters in town. For example, you had Capote here before it was shown at other theaters in the area. How does that happen?
Halpert: Well, it all depends on your distributor. We’ve worked with a lot of the same distributors over the years, and in this case, they decided to give it to us. I really can’t explain why — they probably would make more money in another theater, a bigger theater…. But since we agreed to hold it for three weeks, that was good for them. Steve does all the ordering on the phone, and talks to the distributors all the time, and I think the distributor really just wanted to give it to us. We’ve been dealing with small films for all these years, when nobody else really wanted to.
We usually keep films for one week or two weeks. If it’s something special, we’ll go longer, but it has to happen before we go to press with our calendar, because we never stray from that poster. Almost never — the only time we came close to doing that was when we did Fahrenheit 9/11, and we had that for a whole summer…. We were so lucky to get it. I don’t know why we were so lucky. And once we started it, the lines…. We just cancelled everything else.
How do you decide what to show?
Distributors let us know what’s coming up pretty far in advance. And we read a lot of the trade magazines, we read a lot of reviews ahead of time.
So you don’t see everything you show before you decide on it?
They send us screeners. But sometimes, just from reading reviews in The New York Times and on the Internet, we know what we want…. We also talk to other people who have theaters like this in other towns.
Do you have a sense of whether your clientele has changed since you’ve owned this place?
Not much. I don’t see who comes to every single show, but from the people who buy membership passes, and buy them over and over again, it’s the same people. As soon as their 15 films are checked off, they buy another one. And there are always new people coming in. With Steve teaching at [the Maine College of Art], a lot of kids come in.
That’s interesting, because when [photographer Stacey Cramp, who’s 36, and I, age 41] come here, it often seems like we’re among the youngest, and we’re not that young. Everything you read about movie audiences is about how the blockbusters are made for the 15-year-olds.
The only time the 15-year-olds came here was for Hoop Dreams. And then the whole audience was a foot taller than usual. It depends on the film. Music films, the younger ones come. I don’t know who’s going to come to this Neil Young one that’s coming up [Heart of Gold], whether it will be your age or older.
How did you come to acquire this theater?
Friends of ours started the theater four years earlier, and one of them said, ‘You know, Steve, maybe I’ll get back into my law practice, and would you like to buy the theater?’ So we bought it in 1980, and had it ever since. In those years, don’t forget, there’s no cable television, no video stores. We could do quite well.
What else has changed in the business since then?
DVDs — films go into DVDS very quickly after release. It used to be a year, then it was six months, and it’s getting shorter and shorter…. When we bought the theater, there were [also] more experimental films, more interesting foreign films. Now, so many big studios own smaller studios.
Do you think they’re purposefully being less adventurous?
I think they have to make money. They have to have the money to pay for all the marketing they do, which is expensive, very expensive. There’s still a lot of the other stuff, too, but people aren’t as interested in those [truly independent and foreign films] as they were.
How are you able to keep your prices lower than theater chains’?
We’ve gone up slowly over the years. It started out at $1 on Wednesday nights, and $2 for other nights [admission is now $6; $4 on Wednesdays]. We went up little by little, and nobody has had a complaint. It’s just break even. We haven’t gone up much either on our candy and popcorn.
I was going to ask about concessions, because I’ve read that for the big chains, they make their money on the food. You let people bring stuff in.
People can bring stuff in, but they usually don’t. I mean, if they want to bring in a sandwich, that’s fine. They bring their own coffee in, too. We tried coffee for awhile, but there was too much left over at the end. That part, the concessions, that’s fine. We’ve really made almost no changes in all the years we’ve been here. It’s better that way — people are grateful for what we have here.
Do you watch a lot of movies at home, other than those you’re screening for the theater?
Oh yes, we love movies. One of the first conversations we had when we started going out was movies and jazz. That was over 50 years ago.
Do you like the films being made now more or less than those made 50 or 20 years ago?
I don’t know. It was so cool to know about foreign films when we were dating.
Film-rating standards have relaxed since, say, 40 years ago — language, sex, violence, little things like that. You showed The Aristocrats here, which wouldn’t have been in a theater 40 years ago.
It doesn’t bother me. I guess I like it.
I just feel that sometimes it’s an easy way out for lazy filmmakers who think, ‘We’ll just show a breast here and have this guy say “fuck” every fourth word.’
That’s true, there are subtleties that you don’t see as much anymore. French films and Italian films in the ’60s, they didn’t need to do that — they’re more intriguing, and more romantic, and more courageous. I think that may be my favorite era — Bergman, Fellini, some wonderful Czech and Polish films, and early Hitchcock.