Monday, January 24, 2005

Augusta Free Press : Breaking the movie mold

Augusta Free Press : Breaking the movie mold

A man who built up a theater from nothing and no experience! A man I'd like to talk to!

Breaking the movie mold

Greenbaum script calls for redefining what plays in Middle America

Eye on the Valley

Chris Graham

Adam Greenbaum isn't afraid to tell it like it is.

Particularly when the topic is ... himself.

"My background in the actual movie-theater business is limited to nonexistent. Although I was a projectionist in college," said Greenbaum, who is busy these days renovating the Visulite Theater in downtown Staunton.

He comes to the task with a backstory that you wouldn't expect of someone spearheading a major development project. Greenbaum was a screenwriter in New York and Los Angeles before a stint working as a writer for radio shock-jock Howard Stern.

Greenbaum left early-morning radio for a return to screenwriting that ultimately left him "disillusioned" with the whole business.

"I just was not totally happy with the business of screenwriting," Greenbaum told The Augusta Free Press. "I felt like we were writing crap, basically. We were mainly doing rewrite work. And I always felt like if this is what I'm going to be doing, I might as well be an accountant. Your parameters are so tight, your creativity is so limited. You're expected to do such a formulaic job. It's not really writing. It's a job.

"I decided that if this is what my life is going to be, I might as well do something else that a, I actually enjoy, and b, actually has meaning," Greenbaum said.

Bada bing, bada boom, he ended up in the Queen City fretting over a leaking roof, among the other challenges that he has faced trying to bring the Visulite into the 21st century.

"I started developing this project because I love movies. I love movies that break the mold. I love movies that try. Even movies that fail, as long as it tries, I like it much better than a pat, cliche, formulaic movie that does its job," said Greenbaum, who plans to showcase those kinds of breaking-the-mold flicks at the Visulite once it reopens.

"Part of the problem with Hollywood is that they don't see it. They're so blinded by the economics of the business that they can't take risks. If you're going to spend $100 million on a movie, you can't take a risk. But my feeling is that there's a real market out there, and part of what I'm doing here is trying to prove that there is a market," Greenbaum said.

It is a chip that has been on his shoulder since his early days as a story editor for a Los Angeles-based production company.

"When I was a story editor, I was always pushing scripts that studios never wanted. The argument that they would use to end the conversation was, 'This isn't going to play in Middle America.' Which to me was the most condescending, obnoxious thing. You know? How do you know what people want? It was so frustrating," Greenbaum said.

"The success of this town itself, with the Blackfriars Playhouse and all the arts down here, just prove what I've thought all along," Greenbaum said.

A victory in that battle won't be anything akin to winning the bigger war. Greenbaum knows that going in.

"There are always creative people. There are always creative people out there. There are always going to be great films. Especially if there are venues to present them," Greenbaum said.

"I want to develop theaters that can prove that there is a market for real movies. But I also know that Hollywood isn't going to shift its focus just like that," Greenbaum said.


Visul-izing success

Theater developer looking to do something special with downtown landmark

In Focus

Chris Graham

Adam Greenbaum was looking for a location to put to the test his theory about the movies - the one that has it that not all moviegoers like shoot-'em-up action flicks that they can go to watch in any number of cookie-cutter multiplexes.

Somehow, some way, he landed in Staunton.

Note to readers: The New York City native is very much happy to be here.

"To be honest, it wasn't like I'd fallen in love with the theater. I'd fallen in love with the town," said Greenbaum, who is renovating the Visulite Theater in downtown Staunton.

"And I knew that this was the right place for it. I started talking to people and asking, 'Do you like living here?' And everybody that I talked to said they loved being here. Which is so different from a lot of towns, where everybody hates it, and everybody wants to leave, and everybody who could leave has already left, and everybody who is there is just stuck there. And there's nothing more depressing than that," Greenbaum told The Augusta Free Press.

A screenwriter, Greenbaum had grown disenchanted with his job in the blockbuster-movie biz - so he set out on the course of redeveloping a theater in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan to provide a venue for the kind of thought-provoking movies that he has long favored.

"It was a terrific project, in my view. But the problem was, the costs were just completely insurmountable. Real-estate prices there are completely insane," Greenbaum said.

He decided that he needed to go outside the city "and outside the city's real-estate bubble."

"My philosophy was and is that there is a growing market for films that aren't necessarily studio films," Greenbaum said.

"A lot of people have said that the demise of the movie industry is video games, which makes sense, considering the demographic that Hollywood markets to," Greenbaum said. "The whole idea with films with all the extras is to compete with video games. But for people in their late 30s, 40s and 50s who aren't video-game people, they're completely left out of the equation. And they're not going to all the sudden start playing video games. They were raised on movies. And they're not being serviced."

At the same time, "there's this whole industry creating interesting films that appeal to that market, but they don't get to that market because of the domination of the multiplexes playing the numbers game," Greenbaum said.

"My idea in New York was that Hell's Kitchen was underserved in this market. Which it is. But when I started thinking about more, if Hell's Kitchen, if the West Side of Manhattan, is underserved, look at so many parts of the country that are underserved," Greenbaum said.

And so it was that Greenbaum started looking elsewhere at theater locations - "semi-metropolitan areas," he said.

He was working with a real-estate broker who "had told me," Greenbaum said, "from the beginning, 'Look, we don't do the kind of thing that you're looking for. We do major multiplex kinds of deals.' "

A few weeks later, Greenbaum said, he got a call from the broker about a project that was being done in Virginia with a property owner "who also owned an old theater that might be perfect for you and what you're looking for."

"So I said, 'Where is it?' And the answer was, 'This town called Staunton, Virginia. It's in the Shenandoah Valley,' " Greenbaum said.

"I had no idea what or where he was talking about, so the first thing I did was look at the Staunton Web site. I was really impressed. I told my fiancee, 'I don't much about this place, but they really have their act together.' I've looked at so many town Web sites, and they were just crap. And this site was terrific. So I figured it was worth going down there," Greenbaum said.

Upon his arrival in the Queen City in the dog days of August, "I really fell in love. I was completely captivated by it," Greenbaum said.

He met with his broker and the Visulite's owners at the theater - and his jaw didn't drop, despite the fact that the building was at the time not in the best condition.

"I had seen a number of theaters that were similar to this in condition. When I came in, I wasn't shocked. They were surprised I wasn't shocked. But I'd seen a number of places like this. It's what happens. People just let things go," Greenbaum said.

He was hooked - not as much by the theater, he said, but by the people.

"It took me by surprise. But everybody is so committed to the town, both people who have lived here forever, and people who are new here. Which says something itself, that people want to move to a place," Greenbaum said.

Greenbaum closed on the purchase of the Visulite in October and relocated to the Valley not long thereafter.

Since his arrival, his life has been that of the average building super, in a sense.

"The first thing on the agenda was the roof. It was a total disaster. It was raining, just pouring, and it was pouring in here," Greenbaum said. "We had buckets everywhere. And not just small buckets. And I would come back the next day, and they would be overflowing. And I'd have to get a wet vac, because I couldn't move them. They were just stuck where they were. It was terrible."

He has noticed a bit of a change in his laid-back personality.

"You totally get obsessive about everything," Greenbaum said. "One weekend, one Sunday, the roofers were in here, and they were almost done. It was pouring rain, and they'd been working the whole weekend. And I was going through here with a flashlight, and I found a bead of water coming down from the ceiling, and I'm on the phone with the roofer. 'It's leaking.' "

Greenbaum hasn't set a date for when he wants to have the Visulite reopened for business.

"I'm reluctant to set a date, because if I miss it, people will worry that something is wrong," Greenbaum said.

"There's really no point in rushing. I don't want to open prematurely just to meet a deadline. I don't want to miss a deadline, either. So I figure if I don't have a deadline, I can't miss it.

"I will say that we're working full-steam ahead. And as soon as is humanly possible, we'll have it open," Greenbaum said.


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