Return of the Minor

Arcata's iconic theater gets a reboot



On a sunny Arcata afternoon, Josh Neff is sweeping the broad sidewalk in front of the Minor Theater. He chats briefly and amiably with a bedraggled man seated on the theater's front step. Above him the marquee reads, "Closed; Thank you for 10 great years."

But down at sidewalk level, Neff and his partner, Merrick McKinlay, have replaced the movie posters with large, glossy reproductions of the Minor's opening night crowd, 100 years past. Text above the black-and-white faces heralds the return of the Minor: "New local owners and a community driven focus."

Inside the lobby, Neff, clean cut under a San Francisco Giants hat with tattoos on his forearms, talks excitedly about their plans. A year ago, he bought the theater — and most of the block — as a real estate investment. Now, with the movie theater operators' lease abruptly over, he's found himself running a business he never expected.

But he and McKinlay have big plans. It'll be a lot of work. And expensive. They're going to outfit the theater with state-of-the-art projectors and sound, and replace the seats. They want to bring table service to the theater, expand the meal options and sell beer and wine. And they're going to focus on a curated program — kid-friendly but appealing to the arthouse types. Their buzz is catching, and if they can pull it off, Arcata will be home to one of Humboldt County's most ambitious exhibition spaces for cinema.

The Minor is one of the country's oldest movie theaters, but it's a distinction that comes with some qualifiers. It's actually the oldest surviving multi-reel feature film theater in the United States, having been completed in 1914 — right about when Charlie Chaplin was beginning to find work in pictures. It opened to fanfare, then changed ownership many times, closing for years-long stretches at several points. After a 10-year closure, Humboldt State University students, including David Phillips, formed the Minor Theatre Corp. and began running the theater in 1972. The company bought the theater building in 1980, and Phillips and his partner Michael Thomas, by then the sole owners, added the smaller screening rooms in the late '80s. The company grew to own four of Humboldt County's theaters, the Movies at the Bayshore Mall, the Broadway Cinema in Eureka, and McKinleyville's Mill Creek Cinema.

By the mid-2000s, Phillips was looking to retire, and he found an interested party in Ashland, Oregon based Coming Attractions. The company was relatively small as movie theater chains go, but far exceeded the Minor Theater Corp., operating more than 100 screens up the West Coast.

The company purchased David Phillips' Minor Theatre Corp. in 2005, buying the Broadway Cinema and Mill Creek Cinema buildings and entering into a 10 year lease to operate the Minor. (Coming Attractions also bought the Movies at the Bayshore Mall, but closed it shortly after coming to Humboldt.)

But Coming Attractions had a tumultuous relationship with Arcata. Arcatans — a proudly "anti-corporate" group that had passed a law banning chain restaurants years before — reacted poorly to Coming Attractions' changes at the Minor, which included running advertisements before films and dressing employees in gaudy, multicolor polo shirts. The sterile corporate atmosphere was unwelcome, many felt, and the theater scraped by over the years. (Neff says he looked at the Minor's books, and that Coming Attractions was making a slim profit, but Chief Operating Officer Al Lane told the Journal that the Minor had been operating at a loss for a few years.)

Phillips was unhappy with the changes at the Minor as well. He'd been a cinema lover, and had co-founded the Humboldt International Film Festival while in school. For years, he let the student-run festival use the Minor free of charge. When Coming Attractions took over, it told the festival's organizers they'd have to rent the theater to the tune of $1,500 for four nights. Unable to afford that fee, the festival moved to the Van Duzer Theatre on campus, where it has remained.

The programming changed, too. A Coming Attractions vice president told the Journal in 2014 that it was hard to attract people with the Minor's traditionally "quirky" fare, but the community seemed to think otherwise, lamenting the turn away from arthouse films.

Neff says he never thought he'd be running a theater. He'd been building a real estate portfolio since before the housing bubble burst, buying and remodeling rental homes.

Born at Eureka's General Hospital, Neff, 38, graduated from Fortuna High. He attended University of California Berkeley to study political science, but never finished — he missed home and ended up back in Humboldt County, first working for a tree trimming service, then owning a surf shop in Eureka for a time before getting into construction.

He was in the market for combination residential/commercial properties when his realtor told him it was "too bad" Phillips had taken the Minor block off of the market.

Neff asked his realtor to put them in touch and, before long, they had come to an agreement. Phillips had listed the Minor, the two storefronts north of the theater, and the upstairs apartments, for $2.73 million several years prior, but took them off the market after being displeased with offers.

Neff said Phillips had been forthcoming about Coming Attractions. "He let me know I was not going to be happy when their contract renewal came around," Neff said, adding that he became increasingly aware that the company wasn't really a fit for Arcata. "Although I wasn't happy with what they were doing, I was happy with the real estate investment. They were paying the bills."

In an email interview, Phillips said Neff was clearly excited about the Minor remaining a viable movie theater. "One thing the Minor cannot be is a cookie-cutter corporate motion picture theater," Phillips said, "and [Neff] has the resources and energy to take it in a new direction."

The more Neff dealt with the company and the more familiar he became with its business model, "the more I wanted to go the other way." His view of the theater also began to shift away from a pure investment. When it came time to renegotiate Coming Attractions' contract last fall, it became clear it wasn't going to work. Neff says the company asked for a significant reduction in rent, which he declined.

"Effectively, from our perspective, the rent was too high for us to make a go of it," said Lane, Coming Attractions' COO, so the company decided to end its lease on April 10. (Lane says nothing will change at Broadway and Mill Creek cinemas, both of which Coming Attractions still owns.)

That put Neff in a tricky position: He'd already invited the Humboldt International Film Festival back to the Minor, promising its student co-directors they could host the event for free. The problem was the festival was set to start April 20; Coming Attractions was planning to close up shop 10 days before that, taking with it the projectors, screens, speakers, concessions equipment and many of the theater's seats, which the company owns.

Neff asked the company to stay through the film festival, but got no response. Then, in early February, he got a message: Coming Attractions' maintenance crew was finishing another job and would be in town in a few days to gut the Minor. "I said, 'Wait, wait, wait,'" Josh recalls. It was still two months until the company's lease was up.

The theater closed with little fanfare. The only public announcement came the day the theater shuttered in the seven-word message on its marquee. The company's weekly schedule provided to local media simply said, "The Minor Theatre will be closing down on Friday, 2/5 so we will no longer be submitting schedules for that location."

In one way, Coming Attractions' hasty departure has a silver lining, Neff says. It gives him time to re-outfit the theater and get it running in time for the film festival. "The end result is the community is going to be better off for it," he says.

Neff has big plans. And he wasn't caught completely off guard. When he began to think Coming Attractions might not renew its lease, he started to look into what it would take to run the theater himself. That led him to McKinlay, the owner of one of Arcata's last remaining video stores, La Dolce Video, and the recently opened Richards' Goat Tavern and Tea Room with its attached theater, the Miniplex.

McKinlay says that Neff called him "out of the blue," and that he was proud that his reputation preceded him. McKinlay moved to Arcata from Los Angeles in 1998 to major in religious studies at HSU. He got a job at Video Experience — a store owned by Tom Hildebrandt — and fell in love with film.

McKinlay says he spent much of his time in LA in record stores; he was "one of those obsessives," and he found a similar passion in Video Experience, where the catalog was carefully curated and organized to cater to film lovers both casual and compulsive. Working there, he says, offered a better education than any film course.

When the owners of Video Experience's building decided to sell, Hildebrandt felt it was time to move on, and McKinlay, terrified the store's collection of films would be lost, bought the business with Aimee Hennessy. With the help of the Arcata Economic Development Corporation, the two moved it to a small storefront in Northtown, where it has operated since.

The store was a standout cult favorite, McKinlay says, but he began to see it as a gathering place as well — a space where people would bump into one another and reconnect. He and Hennessy wanted to expand on the social and cinematic experiences people had at the store, so they concocted Richards' Goat — the off-plaza tavern that hosts a variety of foreign, independent and kids movies in its small theater.

McKinlay says he was "flabbergasted" when Neff called him about the Minor. "This is as big as it gets," McKinlay says. "It's been the entertainment center of the town since it was built. It doesn't get any bigger or better than this."

He and Neff formed the Minor Theater Group as 50-50 partners. The company will operate the Minor and lease the space from Neff at a discounted rate.

On a recent afternoon, the Journal caught up with Neff and McKinlay at the Minor. The lobby was stripped of carpeting, the wooden counters and candy displays emptied. In the main theater, shaggy strips of insulation hung where the screen once was. The balcony was completely cleared of seats; the simple tiers looked like the unassuming seating of a Roman amphitheater. The walls were pocked with holes that speakers once filled.

While the clearing-out left Neff with a lot of work to do, he's pleased to be starting with a blank slate. He talks excitedly about the work he'll do — he's planning to put $250,000 into the theater, outfitting it with state of the art digital projectors, sound systems, screens and seats.

"It will, without question, be the best movie-going experience you can get within 100 miles," he says.

McKinlay's excited as well. He says, despite his love for the small theater and the convenience of going to a movie in Arcata, he'd often drive up to Mill Creek Cinemas in McKinleyville because of too many bad experiences at the Minor: a dark, fuzzy image or a crackly soundtrack.

Neff and McKinlay's vision is a cinephile's dream; an immersive experience with strict cellphone rules and a dedication to detail. They plan to augment it with table service offering fresh, local food, beer and wine. Every other row of seats in the main screening room will be replaced with narrow tables, with gaps every few seats to allow people to easily retreat to the lobby for bathroom breaks. Patrons will be able to fill out an order card and have snacks and beverages brought to their seats at several points through the movie. That model's been successful in bigger cities, and McKinlay and Neff say Arcata deserves the same.

Neff's also planning to turn one of the smaller screening rooms into a lounge-like setting, leveling out the floor in order to put high tables in the back and leave open space in the front. That construction will take some time, but will allow for a variety of uses, like live performances, gatherings and more casual movie-viewing.

There are, of course, logistics to figure out. McKinlay says the employees will have to be "service ninjas," able to deliver food with minimal interruption. They've hired most of the staff that worked at the Minor under Coming Attractions (which offered to move them to their other local theaters), and will be putting them to work cleaning, peeling and painting before re-training them to serve future theatergoers.

"A purist might say we're polluting the experience with what we're doing," Neff says, which is part of the reason they're investing so much into the theater's audiovisual side. "So we're going to make up for that with a high quality experience."

They're also developing a security plan to ensure people aren't passing off drinks to minors or being overserved. The last thing they want, Neff says, is for the Minor to develop a reputation as a party place where people wouldn't feel comfortable bringing their kids. As a father of 3- and 7-year-old sons, a family-friendly environment is important to Neff.

While they share a similar energy and broader vision, Neff is deferring to McKinlay on much of the programming. They don't see Coming Attractions' other theaters, or the Arcata Theatre Lounge, or even the Miniplex, as competition. McKinlay says the Miniplex and Minor will be complementary, sister theaters.

Their plan for the Minor includes a mix of prestige, indie, foreign, art, classic, cult and mainstream films. McKinlay says the launch of the theater should coincide with Disney's release of The Jungle Book — a sure-to-be-blockbuster animated/live-action movie. But if the theater were open now, he says, they would be showing Carol and Anomalisa — two Oscar-nominated films from artsy-cred directors that haven't shown in Humboldt County. Neff wants to offer free matinees to kids and seasonal programming (like Rocky Horror Picture Show in October), to bring back midnight movies and host live events, like comedy and interactive murder mysteries. They're even considering showing live broadcasts of big-city ballet performances, and other big-screen events of "cultural value."

"The sky's the limit," McKinlay says. They've contacted a film booking agent "with clout," and McKinlay says he'll draw on his experience at the Miniplex to be creative and nimble with programming.

That involves community feedback as well — McKinlay's interested in starting some kind of movie club, finding a way to unify moviegoers and have them help steer the programming. Most of all, he wants the theater to be the "cinematic lifeblood" of the community, where people can come together to celebrate the art form.

While that's a lofty ideal, McKinlay says it has potential, too. "Everyone can really understand what a gallery is for paintings," he says. "Movies get short shrift. It's a really important art form — moreover, it's a really important art form that actually has legs with young people."

McKinlay and Neff recently attended a national conference for small theater owners. "Everyone's freaked out about Millennials," McKinlay says, but there's a growing feeling that young people want a place where they can leave their phones behind, that attending the theater is a cultural experience. Like music — which is widely available on a variety of canned, convenient formats — there's always going to be a place in our communities for people to gather and experience cinema together, McKinlay says.

Phillips said small, independent theaters "can't remain stagnant. ... [Neff and McKinlay] are smart guys, and once people develop a trust for their choices, which will probably happen very quickly, the audience will grow even more."

Susan Abbey, a film professor and the Humboldt International Film Festival's faculty adviser, says these assessments are generally correct. Watching movies in a theater is a more communal experience, she says. "I think younger people will like that aspect of it."

HSU's film festival has been doing well on campus in recent years, despite being confined to the Van Duzer Theatre — a space that's best for live theater or lecture. And she said Neff has been accommodating to the festival, to the pleasure of the student co-directors. The community was "not thrilled" about coming up to HSU and navigating the school's parking, so Abbey anticipates a higher turnout at this year's festival, which will run from April 20 through 24 at the Minor. "The community loved it there," she said. "It feels more like it belongs in a community centered space."

If all goes well, Abbey says the festival organizers hope to return next spring for its 50th year. "It's like going home," she says.

This April's homecoming will be the unveiling of the latest of many evolutions of the Minor, and an opportunity for the community to feel its cinematic lifeblood flowing once again.

Editor's Note: This story originally misidentified the studio behind the upcoming release of the Jungle Book and ignored the presence of live actors in the film. 

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