The End of an Era in Philadelphia and South Jersey Film Going

This weekend marks the first “official” weekend of new ownership of the Ritz Film Group.  Once operating three theaters in Philadelphia and one multiplex in my hometown of Voorhees, the Ritz was one of the only locally owned art-house theater chains left in the United States.  Known for showing films of distinction, and beloved by its loyal patrons for its classy decor, fantastic popcorn, and sensible rules (no kids under 6, and no kids 6-16 without an adult present, no commercials before the films, and classical music and local art scene slides playing before the trailers), the Ritz was a true institution in Philly and South Jersey.  They are the only theaters I know of where people don’t go to see any particular film; they simply go because they know any film showing at the Ritz will be unique and something to talk about.  I can still remember seeing my first Ritz film at the original Ritz Five in Philly, Much Ado About Nothing.  My first film at the Ritz in Voorhees was The English Patient.  One of the primary reasons I decided to settle in Voorhees a few years ago was the presence of the Ritz 16, knowing that nowhere else would I be able to enjoy independent films, foreign titles, and the latest Hollywood blockbuster under one roof.

Sadly, the owner of the Ritz decided to sell.  The three Philly locations were sold to Landmark, the only national chain dedicated to art-house fare.  Hopefully little will change at these locations.  The Ritz 16, on the other hand, was sold to National Amusements (the chain responsible for IMAX).  They, too, promise to continue showing a combination of mainstream films and the types of distinct entertainment the audience of the Ritz has come to love. 

This weekend, their first under new management, the Ritz 16 is showing Spiderman 3 on 4 screens, and traditional art-house Ritz films on 6 screens.  These numbers seem acceptable, and hopefully they will see the advantage of continuing to cater to the loyal patrons of “movies to talk about.” 

Here’s a list of things I can live with under the new management of the Ritz 16:

-The change in name to “Showcase at the Ritz”

-The inevitable higher ticket and concession prices

-The inevitable onslaught of corporate sponsored advertising in the slides before the trailers

Here’s what I can’t live with:

-Catering to the kids (please no Disney or animated films)

-A slow decline in the number of screens dedicated to art-house cinema

-Commercials and loud music in front of the trailers

-Any significant change in the decor or the menu at the concession stands (please, we love our non-Starbucks owned gourmet coffee stand and Toblerone candy).

So it seems for now, all is not lost…just slightly changed.  Let’s continue to support the distinct films the “new Ritz” continues to show to prove to the new owners big profits can be made by not changing the line-up too drastically, lest our worst fears come to life. 

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For some excellent follow-up on this troubling topic check out this active thread on one of Carrie Rickey’s blogs:

http://blogs.phillynews.com/inquirer/flickgrrl/2007/03/movie_shrines_ritz_theaters_to_be_acquired_by_landmark.html

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7 comments on “The End of an Era in Philadelphia and South Jersey Film Going

  1. Frank S. says:

    I go to this Ritz theater specifically because of the distinct venue and the integrity of (movie) art, along with the positive atmosphere and the KID-FREE (almost) environ. Commercializing this theater and changing its target may bring in even more money (for the owners), but it will lose the distinction among its peers and the admiration of its dedicated audience.
    I feel major changes (OR MINOR ONES OVER TIME) in this venue are just prey to commercialism. The audience will eventually fall to accept commercials, unwatched kids, and all the other exploits our society accepts as “normal behavior” in the guise of marketing. Bad move, Ritz.

    Frank, so far the Ritz in Voorhees has done a decent job. The art-house films (what they now call CineArt) still have the no kids rules and are on one side of the building. Yes, they do show kids movies (like Shrek 3), but they keep them distant on the other side of the theater. They still use all the traditional Ritz slides, and no commercials (yet), and still have the Ritz Film Books (now called the CineArt Film Bill). The only really bad part so far, is the popcorn is of poorer quality now. They also have a huge suggestion box and their management is very open to the feedback from the distinctive Ritz patrons, so that is a good sign that they want to keep the theater unique. -DHS

  2. Martha W says:

    My first Ritz film in town was in my twenties, The Crying Game. Since then I’ve been addicted. When Ritz came to Voorhees, I died and went to heaven, literally. I do not sit through movies well due to some physical problems. The Ritz 16 solved all that for me. I still leave limping, but I can go to a movie once a week, instead of once in a blue moon.
    All of what is written is true, however, I have heard from my friends that the lemonade is awful (now) and that the popcorn IS terrible and twice the price for half the amount. I will not be able to purchase my habitual large cappuccino and low-fat cappuccino loaf or blueberry scone along with the ticket price.
    And I find it disheartening that the faithful, the weekly movie goer, those of us that as you mentioned would just show up and ask the ticket sellers (who that they knew by name) what movie to see, those of us that are responsible for the existence of a theatre for National Amusements to buy, are to continue to see OUR movies in NON-stadium seating theaters, while the trendier movies that will be filled with younger audiences are screened in the better theatres. The entire viewing premise should be flopped. And there should be MORE “CineArt” films and fewer “blockbusters”.
    Do I REALLY believe families will (continue) to pay the higher Ritz prices over the cheaper Cinemark and AMC tickets nearby? Cinemark is a great theatre with comfortable seats, very new, much better prices. Hmmmmm.
    Let’s hope that this is not all the undoing of a once truly unique and incomparable Night Out.
    And if they want to give out something to the CineArt group, instead of the mini Toberlone let it be a $1 off concession ticket from the concession stand to make up for the increase in the coffee prices (and soda ~ OMG, I bought one to take medicine and was SHOCKED ~ NEVER AGAIN).
    I guarentee, this is one theatre I will never take MY kids to. BUT, I will continue to go alone, on dates, and for Girls Night Out. If others do the same, maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the hint. And who knows, maybe we’ll even get some of the ol gang back working there. We miss you guys!!!!

    Martha, thanks for stopping by! I always forget about the Cinemark theater…you make some interesting points about prices and the family films. Hopefully people will still see the sense of going to Cinemark with their kids instead of the higher priced Ritz. The seating at the Ritz right now isn’t of concern to me, as long as they still show the arthouse films…though I think you are right. I think they will realize that in the Fall and Winter season when traditionally more adult-targeted arthouse type films break out and get bigger audiences. When those shows sell out (like they traditionally have at the Ritz…I can still remember the insane lines for movies like The Illusionist and Munich in their opening weeks of limited release) I think National Amusements will see the logic and money-making potential of putting those films in the bigger stadium auditoriums. –DHS

  3. dennis slack says:

    I too am saddened by the sale of the Ritz. I heard it was a local developers hobby. When he died the development company didn’t see the need to continue his passion. God forbid they don’t make x amount of dollars. Forget the fact the man built a business they all made a fortune on. Don’t honor him or anything. Ok that’s my rant. I was a philly boy and remember my first ritz 5 movie. A rainy day nothing to do a friend and I went and saw some art house flick Resevoir Dogs. I was hooked. Now that i think of it i think i may have seen last temtation of christ there before Dogs. Anyway when I moved to voorhees (sturbridge lakes) i came kicking and screaming. Who wants to live in New Jersey I thought. Well I loved it. THen they built the Ritz and I loved it even more. Now well, I think you can already see the ritz deteriorating. And my neighborhood is just one non stop strip mall. 73 used to be so nice. Anyway thats my 2 cents on the ritz. Nothing good last forever.

    Dennis, yes, the Ritz in Voorhees has changed since the sale, but they’ve done a nice job of still showing the arthouse fare. The CineArt strategy is working so far. Is at good as it was? No. Is it better than what I thought would happen when I heard the sad news? Yes. So far, so tolerable. As long as they keep showing the films I want to see, I don’t care so much that kids flicks and mainstream films are showing down the hall. –DHS

  4. Andrew says:

    I hate to be negative… but I think all traces of the Ritz that we knew will be gone in a year. This is the direction that our culture is going – spectacle and noise. I don’t know if you’ve been there recently… but it’s already changed. The patrons have changed. I don’t understand it myself… it’s like families with screaming, illmannered children had dug small ditches around the perimeter of the theater, lying in wait for the day when they could rise up, order a fistfull of bonbons and ruin my evening. The Ritz (I can’t bear to call it by it’s new, blisteringly absurd name) will follow it’s little green-lined path into mediocrity as the bosses in Home Office realize that Pixar and Disney movies make far more money for them than foreign films. Money will go on to ruin another thing in our culture… and the lion’s share of the public will grow even stupider than they previously had been.

    I know… I didn’t think that was possible either.

    Andrew, I share your concerns…but let’s be practical. Yes, the type of patrons you describe are now there…but so are the faithful. I saw “Waitress” and “Sicko” there on Sunday afternoons to packed houses full of the type of people who put the original Ritz on the map. Even a little indie film like “You Kill Me” had a decent crowd of regulars when I saw it on an early Monday matinee. The bottom line is, though the theater has changed, they are still showing the types of films traditional Ritz patrons want to see, and if we want that to continue, we need to show up. Otherwise, what you describe will most assuredly happen. –DHS

  5. Bob says:

    I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but the over riding thread in these postings seems to be about money. People seem to think that theatre owners make huge profits. I spent 25 years in the movie theatre business in the Washington, D.C. area and I can tell you the average theatre operates on a profit margin of about 3%. That means for every dollar taken in at both the boxoffice and concession stand they get to keep about three cents after all the bills are paid. That’s not exactly getting rich.

    Here in the DC area, we have the Shirlington 7 Theatre. It started as an art house about 20 years ago featuring 70MM projection, large curved screens, and comfortable seating. The theatre was built by Circle Theatres, a local chain. It was then sold to Loew’s and finally to AMC. Each owner has maintained the art house format and the theatre continues to do well. When I go to the movies I want good picture and sound quality, correct aspect ratios and a well behaved audience. The Shirlington delivers that. In fact, most DC area theatres do. Upscale concessions items don’t interest me as I don’t go to the movies to eat.

    The problem we in the art house audience have is that we are replaceable. We are also very loyal. The Ritz new owners can do well by maintaining the art house fare and I hope they do. If they can sellout with art movies as they do with standard fare we can hope the booking policy won’t change. But if they do decide to switch to more mainstream movies, they won’t be making the fortune some people seem to think they make.

    Bob, nicely put. I tend to agree. That’s what people don’t realize…the new owners will continue to book the art-house films as long as we keep paying to see them. It’s as simple as that. Thanks for the input. –DHS

  6. April says:

    People! Nothing has changed. It’s all in your head. The popcorn is the EXACT SAME. And if anything, the prices are cheaper.
    I’m tired of going there and hearing people complain about the slow lines. They are young kids dealing with hundrends of people a night. If you think you can move faster, then get a job there!

    April, LMAO, yeah it pretty much is the same except the kids movies are shown there now. Looks like we were all worried for nothing. Much ado…though I still contend the popcorn is of a slightly lower quality 🙂

    Long live the Showcase at the Ritz–it’s still the nicest movie theater I know and the only place outside of Philly where they routinely show arthouse films. And I’ve never had issues with the lines…long lines indicate the theater is doing great business and will be here to stay. –DHS

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