Keeping Things Alive at the Pageant Theatre in Chico
By Sue Ralston
Crowning GloryNovember 2015
By Sue Ralston
Photos: Paula Schultz
Blockbuster movies have their place, and so do the theaters that show them. But if you crave indie, offbeat or foreign films, consider the Pageant Theatre in downtown Chico, locally owned and operated and thriving after 35 years in business.
A 99-seat theater with a loyal following, the Pageant was threatened with closure in 2013 when Hollywood went digital after 100 years of movies being screened on film reels using 35mm prints. Theaters that wanted to stay in business had to adapt or die. But a costly conversion to a digital projection system was a daunting prospect for this small theater.
The solution? Their “Go Digital or Go Dark” campaign. The founders of the Pageant, Roger Montalbano and Tim Giusta, who had each borrowed $1,000 from their mothers to help get the theater started 35 years ago, took to a crowdfunding site with a plea for help raising the necessary $51,000. And it worked. Shortly after their campaign went live, they had raised more than they needed.
“We did make above and beyond what we asked for,” says Miles Montalbano, son of founder Roger Montalbano and now in charge of operations. “It was quite heartening to see people step up and say ‘Yeah, this is really important and we want you to stay open.’”
Not only did they convert to digital projection, they upgraded the seats, got a new screen and now have a Dolby Surround Sound system. To be sure, it still has the intimate feel of a small art house theater. Old movie posters line the walls and there’s a couple of couches in front of the rows of seats. The person selling the tickets is likely also the person making the organic popcorn and chatting amiably with each moviegoer.
Miles, who returned to Chico from San Francisco to run the theater after the fundraising campaign was successful, is himself a filmmaker, with a 2007 feature film, “Revolution Summer,” to his credit. Indeed, the film made the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ten Best list for 2007.
Montalbano not only has a passion for film, but also an adventurous streak. “We’re starting to do more special series and events.” During October, they showed horror films every weekend. He’s started some late night programming of cult films – fan favorites such as “Blue Velvet,” “This is Spinal Tap” and the original “Mad Max.”
Montalbano is constantly looking for new ways to make the operation sustainable. The theater has a Monday night cheapskate price of $4 and is now reaching out to the campus, offering a student discount. The Pageant is also partnering with Chico radio station KZFR to do events together where they sell beer. And he’s been talking with a local restaurant about collaborating on a dinner and movie package.
All movie theaters, not just the small independently operated ones, face challenges in this era of instant downloads and streaming video. In order to thrive in the midst of these challenges, the Pageant is mounting a sustaining membership drive, “kind of like the public television or radio station. If people donate up front, they can get movie passes and other goodies,” says Montalbano. A Pageant Friend Plus, with a $75 annual donation, will enjoy a lower price for each admission, get two invitations to special member screenings and five guest passes.
The Pageant is a business, he acknowledges, but he would really like people to know that the operation of the theater is more of a labor of love. “We’re not getting rich doing this. We love movies, we love Chico and the community. It’s about film as an art form and film as community more than commerce.”
THE PAGEANT THEATRE
351 EAST 6TH ST.,
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