If there is an iconic image of Downtown Fayetteville, and its near miraculous transformation, that image would include the marquee of the Cameo Art House Theatre on Hay Street. A dozen years ago, when what is now a foregone conclusion was much more elusive, the renovation of that old theater into the Cameo was an act of faith. Now, reality is at the door, and soon the Cameo may be just a memory.
In case you haven’t noticed, that wonderful invention of Kodak’s creative labs, (digital photography) has turned film into 1s and 0s. Everything is digital. It’s been quite a ride,taking us from big clunky cellular bag phones to the iPhone; from huge film cameras, to slightly smaller video cameras, to incredibly small, superior digital video cameras. It’s changed everything, from the way we read the news, to the way we share Christmas photos, to the way we watch movies. Digital has made a lot of things disappear, including Kodak and maybe the Cameo.
When I arrived in Fayetteville, in 1968, there were four movie houses Downtown: the Broadway, The Carolina, The Colony and The Miracle. The Miracle was the spiffiest, with a long hallway that stretched inside to the large 1,500 seat theater. The line wove by the glass front studios of WFLB, Fayetteville’s only rock’n roll station. On your way to the movies, you could see Ted Michaud, Ron Phelps or Larry “Boom-Boom” Cannon, messing with the constant stream of people who were out for a night on the town. Then multiple-screen theaters came. Then VHS and Blockbuster came. The movie houses left.
Change happens. Ever hear of Vaudeville? It was killed by the movies, the silent movies, which was killed by the talkies, which were killed by radio, which was killed by television, which seems to be dying a long, slow death, morphing, along with many other forms of entertainment, to the Internet.
So digital has overtaken the film industry. Film is history. Film is expensive, to print, copy, ship and display. So just as the telephone companies realized they could make more money by eliminating the telephone poles and underground wires by switching to cellular, the film industry said, “Us, too!”
So let’s get back to the Cameo. So maybe some of you reading this say, “So What? I can see the big blockbuster, shoot ‘em up/ blow ‘em up at the local giant 30-screen cinderblock box.” True, but what about those of you who have experienced the Cameo Art House Theatre? You know who you are.
In 2000, when Eric Lindstrom and Chris and Naseem Keunzel designed and built the Cameo, most folks thought they were crazy. It made no sense. They did it because Fayetteville “needed” an art cinema. If we were going to help transform our downtown into a place that would be a destination, a place that tourists would visit, we needed certain things. They mortgaged everything they owned to get the money to renovate and open the Cameo. It was an investment of more than $600,000 in 1999. Then they finished the upstairs, more intimate screening room for an additional $300,000. They did this on the belief that Fayetteville would come and support them. Many did, but not nearly enough. As is the history of small, independent art-house cinemas across the country, each month is a struggle. It is a struggle that makes Fayetteville a better place to be.
Now, if they were a non-profit organization, they could solicit tax-exempt donations, or grants (as the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines just did), but they wanted to stay true to their independence. They bet on downtown, and they were right. Now they’re betting on the public (that’s you). A lot of people began to believe in the future of downtown when they saw the Cameo open its doors. Granted a lot of small businesses have come and helped promote the dream of Downtown Fayetteville, but the Cameo is different. It still makes no sense that the Cameo is open. They show the movies that the “big guys” don’t touch. Usually the movies that become the award winners, the movies that you would have to leave town to see. It should have closed years ago.
Lindstrom left the partnership because of work demands, but the Keunzels are still struggling to keep the doors open. They have an architectural company that pays their monthly bills, but they simply can’t afford to underwrite the digital upgrade.
The good news is — they are not alone.
A growing group of supporters is organizing a private fundraising effort to switch the Cameo to digital. The campaign is called, “Go Digital or Go Dark.” An ominous name, but true. By 2013, all major film releases will be available only in a digital format. End of story. Or is it?
It really is up to you. Why should you support this effort? Because if you like what is happening to our town, then you need to help the people who helped make it happen. I always urge everyone to buy something from a downtown merchant ( full disclosure – I am one), so they can stay in business and keep downtown thriving. That’s the only way it can work. This move to digital is the same. The amount is huge — $200,000. Yikes!
Yes, you could write one check for the entire amount, but they’d prefer a smaller amount that will go through the bank. I cannot think of any other private company that I would support in this manner, but this is a for-profit company that has never made much of a profit. Why? Because the mission meant more than the margin, and I’m thankful for that.
To help out, visit www.cameoarthouse.com.C. John Malzone