Walton Theater on the brinkPublished 11:00pm Saturday, October 26, 2013
Low attendance numbers and dramatically decreased revenue levels have led the operators of the Selma Walton Theater to ask for help from the community, or they may be forced to close the doors on the iconic theater.
David and Sharon Jackson have operated the city-owned building since January of last year, and Sharon said they are committed to the two-year contract they have with the city, even though the theater has struggled financially since the doors opened.
“Throughout the past year, we have had to personally support the theater from our own personal finances because attendance has been down,” Sharon said. “We had ‘Gravity’ last weekend, which is still one of the top rated movies in the country. And I think we had a total of less than 60 people who came all weekend over six showings.”
Low attendance numbers, like those seen last weekend, combined with operating costs have put the Jacksons in a position where they are seeking outside help to keep the theater open to the public.
In an email sent to Times-Journal last week, the Jacksons described just how dire the situation has become.
“Currently, attendance is down 23%, concession sales are down 24%, but operating costs, studio fees, insurance and concession costs have increased.”
“In order to keep the theater operating through December, we need to raise $6,000 by November 10th,” the email read.
Sharon said the reasons for the theater’s struggles are many, including the fact that before the Walton reopened, there had not been a movie theater in Selma for nearly a decade; so many people had turned to other sources of entertainment.
Along with those lost years for moviegoers, the Jacksons said the theater is being impacted by part of the contract with the city of Selma limiting the usage of the building.
The Jackson’s had been renting out portions of the Larry Striplin Performing Arts Center — which includes the Walton Theater — to host events for members of the public, which the city said was forbidden by the contract.
A letter sent to the couple in May of this year by Selma City Attorney Jimmy Nunn said the building was to be used to screen movies only.
The letter said, “… You are being requested to refrain from scheduling any parties, dinners, gatherings and/or activities of any kind prior to a movie showing, even if the participants are required to attend the movie, unless said events are scheduled through the public buildings director, Kay Jones.”
Sharon said the limitation on the use of the building has only exasperated their financial situation.
“If decisions, policies, or contract rulings are made that restrict what we can do here at the theater, then ultimately you are just hurting your own theater. If the theater is squeezed to a point — which we are — where we can no longer pay the bills, and if part of that pressure is because of restrictions placed on us, then ultimately you end up shutting down your own theater,” Sharon said.
This week, the Jacksons received an email from City Council administrative assistant Temekia Sykes, asking them to attend a Movie Transition Meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 5 in the Council Chamber at City Hall.
The email said that “Councilwoman Angela Benjamin would like to know what is your intent concerning the movie theater.”
Councilwoman Benjamin could not be reached for comment this week about details of the meeting.
Asked early this week about the management the Jackson’s have exhibited so far, Selma Mayor George Evans said they had obviously done their best.
“I think the management has been wonderful,” Evans said. “The return on the dollar has not been what it should be because of a lack of participation as a whole by the general public, but they have good a good job managing it.”
Evans could not be reached for comment later in the week to respond to the Jacksons’ comments about the contract dispute or the upcoming meeting.
“This is the one place in the city where people in different ages groups, sexes and races all sit in the same room,” Sharon said. “That motivates me to come here every week, even when there are only ten people, because I really feel we have helped to build the bigger community here in Selma.”
Evans concurred with Jackson, saying the theater should be embraced by the community.
“It’s something that can help change the quality of life for citizens who live here, and for some who don’t live here that may come to the movie theater as opposed to going to Montgomery or Prattville to see an up to date current movie on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening,” Evans said.