A Different Vision for Campustown: Reconsider the Varsity Theatre

February 23rd, 2011 · 3 Comments

Update: In June, the Ames city council declined to give Lane4 more time to come up with a plan for Campustown redevelopment but said that the city may approach the Kansas City development company in the future.

I really would have enjoyed having a movie theater by campus. I’m kind of disappointed that at no point during my stay in Ames has the Varsity Theatre been operational.

If it had been open I probably would have seen many more movies. My love for cinema has waned in recent years simply because it’s a process to go to a theater in Ames. If it had been easier to see movies my wallet would have been a little lighter, my grades may have taken a minor hit, and I probably would have spent less time at places that serve drinks on my weekend nights.

The Varsity Theatre shut down about three years ago, and hasn’t been open since. In late January 2010, the Government of the Student Body of Iowa State University put forward a plan that detailed how bringing back the Varsity Theatre as a government-subsidized, not-for-profit business was feasible.

The GSB plan was thorough. It had student-interest polls that garnered a decent response and it documented where the information came from. This plan can be found on gsb.iastate.edu for those who want to pour over it on their own. Its results show that it’s a safe bet that the interest for a theater on campus is out there.

The best part about this is that the theatre could be geared toward all-ages fun, not just fun that applies to the twenty-one-and-up crowd. A theater would provide entertainment for those who have difficulty being entertained in a society that hinges so much on being the magical age of twenty-one.
It’s important to ask the ominous question, Why did the Varsity Theatre fail to begin with?

From what I gathered talking to people, toward the end of the theater’s time with Cinemark it was showing movies that were what people call “bad movies.” Not bad in the sense of morality, but bad because they wouldn’t catch or hold your interest. I don’t know if Cinemark was trying to integrate the utility of the Varsity Theatre to coincide with the other theaters in town, but that would make a lot of sense.

Since Cinemark has a theater on the south end of Duff that shows new releases, and a theater at the North Grand Mall that is supposed to be like a dollar theater, doesn’t that leave a niche for the Varsity Theatre to fill? It could show compelling movies without competing with either of the other two theaters. I’m sure that Cinemark would appreciate it if the state made efforts not to undermine its interests by showing the same movies at far cheaper prices.

It would be very possible for the Varsity Theatre to vie for students’ attention without reaching outside of Campustown if it showed classic films that still hold people’s attention. Think of how fun it would be if every Thursday night an old Hitchcock film were shown, or if each week something old by Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese was played. I know I’d be in a seat watching, as would many others who value the experience of watching a great film in a theater.

The cost of reopening the Varsity Theater would be substantial. The GSB plan estimated the cost to be just over $280,000. When Cinemark vacated the building they didn’t leave much behind; to jump start Varsity Theater back to life would require purchasing two new screens and seats so people could sit and view the movie. Then you’ve got expenses for concessions equipment, a credit card machine, lighting, and other things that make a theater logistically possible.

A future project to bring back the Varsity Theater won’t be cheap, but it is possible. While I’d much rather have it privately owned, another route is to have the state – ISU – purchase it and make it student-run.

A couple of silver screens is something that Campustown needs, and the Varsity Theatre can provide both of them. Not only would it be an all-ages entertainment hub but it would help provide people with a sense of culture, providing it shows films that inspire thought in students.

[Editor's note: The Space for Ames, which until recently was a part of the Ames Progressive, is in Campustown and would be affected if Lane4's proposal were approved in its current form.]

Related articles
A Different Vision for Campustown
A Different Vision for Campustown: Embrace What’s There, Don’t Slash and Burn
A Different Vision for Campustown: Why Not a Slow and Steady Approach?
A Different Vision for Campustown: Instead of Demolition, Beautification

Tags: 2011 · AP Issues · Cover Stories · February 2011 · Lane4 · Of Local Importance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff // Feb 23, 2011 at 9:51 am

    The smaller room could be a dedicated movie space, and the larger one could be a multi-use cultural center. Sell memberships around town, have it be a community-student cooperative project! Let’s weird campustown a bit, it needs it.

  • 2 Nathan // Feb 24, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Boy, I wish, but it’s not gonna happen. I remember the hardships Varsity faced towards the end of its tenure–lumped into Cinemark’s Ames monopoly, trying to pull in an art-house crowd once a week with their CineArts thing, the gradually more expensive discounts–they hadn’t been doing well in a while. Unfortunately ISU students aren’t receptive enough to check out the obscurities of Kubrick and Scorsese.

    I’m old enough to remember when there were TWO theaters in that area, within a block of each other (the old theater was just called Ames). Things were better before Cinemark decided to consolidate the south of Ames and SUB Films decided what it needed was more Transformers sequels.

  • 3 Jeff // Feb 24, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Most college cinemas run much more than one film a week per screen. That was a dumb business model, but I guess less work for them…

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