In my last column I discussed the importance of the arts scene to the health of Hartford. Improving Hartford seems to be a constant parlor game, and most suggestions fall under three themes: more entertainment, less crime, and less predatory parking (Hartford’s albatross).
The problem always becomes a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. Do we lower the crime to increase the entertainment or increase the entertainment to lower the crime? There is a strong argument to make that increasing the entertainment value of Hartford will lead to more foot traffic and improved properties, which then reduces crime, which in turn will increase the appeal of Hartford. It starts the cycle of improvement. Spotlight Theatres, a large entertainment complex located across from the Convention Center on Front Street, has the potential to make a large positive impact on the City when they open in early to mid-November.
As an area example of cyclical improvement, think about the level of quality restaurants in West Hartford. How did this develop? After a few popular restaurants (Grant’s, Max’s Oyster Bar) moved to town, they became anchor businesses. Their popularity increased the appeal of dining in West Hartford, which enticed restaurateurs to open up more restaurants. As the amount of restaurants grew, that continued to increase the attraction. An increase in business led to an increase in tax revenue, which was used to keep the town safe and clean—which cemented the appeal. The opening of a few quality restaurants allowed the town to cross the invisible threshold of collective behavior, the tipping point.
Spotlight Theatres on Front Street is a major step in the right direction towards reaching a tipping point for Hartford. This week I took a tour of the facility and spoke with their General Manager, Steve Menschell. Spotlight Theatres is a national boutique chain based out of Atlanta. The company is hoping to make Hartford their landmark location with this $4 million, 23,000 sf project that includes a parking garage. The complex includes a full-service restaurant, bar, concession stand, private party area, and four stadium-seating auditoriums. The restaurant, Front Street Bistro, will serve moviegoers and non-moviegoers alike. You will be able to order your food and drink (including alcohol) and bring it into the movie.
Spotlight Theatres is not your run-of-the-mill movie theater at a mall. Instead, the complex hopes to become a center of activity around the celebration of cinema. Picture yourself grabbing dinner at the Bistro (or bringing it into the film), watching a movie, and then discussing the film with your friends afterwards at the bar. The movie selection will be a mix of quality mainstream, indie, and art films. There will also be special events such as movie premieres, film-and-discussion nights, and festivals.
Spotlight Theatres is currently in discussions with the University of Hartford, Trinity, Capital Community College, and Wesleyan about forming collaborations. For example, imagine a showing the The Godfather followed by a discussion with an area film professor. The first festival Spotlight Theatres will host is the Hartford FlickFest from December 6-9 followed by the Hartford Jewish Film Festival in April 2013.
General Manager Steve Menschell is a Manchester, CT native who recently moved back to the area from Indiana. His father owned multiple theaters in downtown Hartford, so he was surrounded by the love of cinema from an early age. Unfortunately, as has happened with bookstores and record shops, the country moved from stores with passionate employees (bibliophiles at bookstores and audiophiles at record shops) towards a depersonalized model.
The same thing has happened with movie theaters. According to Menschell, “The industry started moving away from the neighborhood theater.” Spotlight Theatres will try to capture the feeling of the classic neighborhood theater by having approachable employees. Each employee’s nametag will feature their favorite movie, which should be a good conversation starter. “Everyone who we’ve hired has a keen interest in movies.”
Spotlight Theatres, being a small company, would like to actively respond to the wants of its patrons. Before selecting the seats for their auditoriums, the company put it up for a vote. Over 1,700 people voted. Menschell emphasized that Spotlight Theatres is always looking for suggestions about movies and special events, and has been pleased so far with the comments coming in from Facebook and Twitter. “Patrons have a big say here. We want this to be a fun place to come to.”
If Spotlight Theatres makes it a fun place to come to, and draws the crowds of moviegoers and non-moviegoers alike, it will go a long way with revitalizing Hartford.
Stay tuned for updates as this project nears completion.
Spotlight Theatres / Facebook
Spotlight Theatres / Website
Polgar is the author of the Wisdom in the Age of Twitter, recently released by Libboo. He will be featured on Jaki’s Buzz (WESU 88.1 FM) this Sunday from 6-7:30. If you have an idea for a column topic, contact him here.