Madison's Market Square Theatre probably doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did when it opened 30 years ago, on Aug. 4, 1989.
While other theaters in town like Marcus Point and New Vision Fitchburg 18 have spruced up their looks by adding leather recliner seats, full kitchens and bar areas, Market Square retains a decidedly retro feel. The neon “Snack Bar” sign over the concession stand, the ‘80s video games in the arcade, the old “Our Feature Presentation” clip that plays before each movie all make walking into the theater feel like cosplaying an episode of “Stranger Things.”
The west side theater's devoted fans like it that way, especially since one other thing hasn’t changed much since 1989: the price for a ticket.
On Aug. 4, 1989, seeing “Say Anything” or “Karate Kid III” at Market Square would have cost you $1.50. Thirty years later, the price to see “Booksmart” or “Late Night” is just $3.50, about a quarter to a third of what you’d pay to see a movie elsewhere.
“It’s just that classic movie feel,” lead assistant manager Emelie Ziegelhoffer said. “We offer that very retro movie experience. It’s no frills. You could stay home and watch Netflix and that’s free, or you can go watch a movie on the big screen and it’s only $3.50.”
Movie theaters everywhere are grappling with how to respond to the threat from Netflix and other streaming services taking a chunk out of their box office. Some have added amenities like full dinner and drink menus, and food service in the theaters. Others have emphasized special events. Still others have experimented with variable pricing, like the MoviePass model of charging a flat rate for unlimited movies.
Market Square has its own set of challenges. It’s tucked away behind the Market Square Shopping Center off Odana Road. Recent construction has made the theater even harder to find. As a discount “second-run” movie theater, it doesn’t get movies until a few weeks after they’ve played at other theaters.
But as the theater celebrates its 30th anniversary, it also has found an unlikely advantage in competing with other theaters: independent movies. With Sundance 608 converting to AMC Madison 6 in 2018, Madison has effectively been left without an independent first-run movie theater. Theaters in town still play independent movies like “The Farewell” or “Maiden” now and then, but local movie buffs have to keep a sharp eye out on when and where, since they usually only last for a week or two with little or no advance notice.
That’s left a gap that Market Square is happy to fill.
“There’s not that many other opportunities, especially on the west side of Madison, to watch indie movies,” Ziegelhoffer said. “They’ve been doing great here.”
Only two of the seven movies playing this weekend are big summer blockbusters: the underwhelming “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” The other five are all independent movies: “Booksmart,” “Pavarotti,” “The Biggest Little Farm,” “Late Night” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
That last one is especially exciting for Ziegelhoffer because first-run Madison theaters didn’t choose to play it, meaning it will get its local premiere at Market Square. The Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare drama “All is True” and the Oscar-nominated Japanese drama “Shoplifters” were also Market Square premieres.
“We’re actually opening movies,” she said. “‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ hasn’t played anywhere else in Madison. We’re so excited because we don’t often get to open movies.”
Market Square is owned by Landmark Theatres, a national chain that also owns a number of independent theaters in big markets, like Milwaukee’s Downer Theatre and Chicago’s Century Centre Cinema. Landmark’s booking agent, based in California, is on top of the independent films might be available for Market Square to play.
Ziegelhoffer said the theater's booker has been receptive to suggestions from Market Square’s staff about what its audience might want to see.
“We communicate with her pretty regularly,” she said. “She’ll send a list of movies and ask which movies would be best for us. That’s been a good and unique kind of experience.”
And because Market Square doesn’t have to open the newest movies every Friday, Ziegelhoffer said she can be more responsive to what her customers are enjoying, letting films stay longer to build word of mouth. The documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” only played for a couple of weeks at Marcus Point in its initial run, but it’s now in its fifth week at Market Square and shows no signs of slowing down.
“People keep coming to them, so we keep them for months sometimes,” she said.
Ziegelhoffer said the theater’s customer base seems to appreciate the shift towards independent movies, and said she hears from regular customers who are self-proclaimed movie buffs.
“It’s nice to have a customer want to talk to you about how much they loved ‘Pavarotti,’” she said. “I’ve worked in retail in a couple of places, and this is by far the best place as far as customers. People are nice, people are happy. We get these regulars that are just the sweetest people.”
When the theater first opened in 1989, its low price point was perceived as a threat to the big movie chains, said projectionist Deana Thorson, who has been at Market Square since 1994. That fear was initially proven correct.
“It was crazy busy all the time,” Thorson said. “We had every weekend lines out the door and around the corner. We had to have both poppers going, and all but one or two theaters were sold out.”
Now, she said, the biggest obstacle the theater has to overcome is “people don’t know we’re here.”
In 2018, the theater was caught in the middle of a legal dispute between the owners of the Market Square shopping center and the owners of the back parking lot, who wanted to develop a large chunk of the lot into affordable senior housing. In a lawsuit, the shopping center’s owner said losing the parking space would likely doom the theater.
The apartment complex is being built just yards away from the theater’s front door. The theater is still running, with plenty of parking remaining in the lot. But the media coverage of the dispute left a negative impression that the theater would be closing, Ziegelhoffer said.
“That has been a little frustrating,” she said. “We get people coming in and saying ‘We’re happy you’re still open!’ It’s a great feeling to hear that all the time, but you want them to spread the word. ‘Please, tell your friends!”
Behind the scenes, more has changed at Market Square than meets the eye. The theater switched all its projectors from film to digital a couple of years ago. Where Thorson used to carry giant canisters of 35mm film up the stairs to the projectionist booth, now films arrive on little hard drives. Thorson programs the film and trailers into the digital projector, and can even make changes remotely on her iPad while sitting downstairs in the theater, testing sound and picture quality.
Ziegelhoffer was not sure if the theater will formally celebrate its 30th birthday this month. Mainly she wants to keep booking independent movies, giving her customers the big-screen experience they want.
“We hope to stay here for a really long time,” she said. “Fingers crossed.”
“We’re still plugging along,” Thorson added. “We love it here.”