Projected for Success
In the heart of downtown Lewisburg, a historic theater fights to stay alive.
Photos Courtesy of The Lewis Theatre
For Devin Preston, The Lewis Theatre has always been a place of awe. He grew up two blocks away from the historic theater in downtown Lewisburg, and every week he walked over to see a movie. It didn’t matter what was playing. There was something about that moment when the lights go down and the screen lights up. For two hours, he escaped. “I would watch anything. Most of the time I didn’t even know what was showing. I just loved the experience,” he says. Sometimes a movie would resonate with him so much he would go back to see it again—like Dances with Wolves. “I saw that movie every night it played. I probably spent 20 hours in the theater that week,” he says.
Back then Devin spent enough time watching movies to constitute a part-time job. When his mother, Lin Preston—a board member for the Trillium Performing Arts Collective—was involved with purchasing the theater in 2007, Devin got the chance to find actual employment at The Lewis. The building was purchased to house performing arts events, but Devin, his sister, and a family friend took over responsibility of the film side of business. “It was a way to keep things happening all the time. We didn’t want to lose the theater downtown,” Devin says. His wife and kids even help out, selling tickets and performing free dance routines on stage before the movies start. By restoring both film and live performances to the theater, The Lewis is in line with its original intent—when it opened in 1939, it offered vaudeville performances in addition to the cinema.
The problem is The Lewis is still using the same technology to play movies that it did in 1939—35-millimeter film projection. They have to convert to digital by the end of the year or go dark. Threats of the end of 35-millimeter film circulated for some time, but by 2010, it was clear the threat was real. “We knew we needed to plan for this,” Devin says. “We saved everything we made for years.” It’s a $65,000 investment to switch to digital, a big commitment for a small theater. Minus the cost of occasional repairs or renovations, the staff was able to furrow away profits for three years. They raised roughly half the funds they need, but with time running out, they realized it was time to ask for help. In September 2013, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise 39,000 in 39 days.
The campaign has been going strong for almost a month. Based on trends and projections, The Lewis is primed for success, raising nearly 40 percent of its goal as it enters into the last two weeks. “We’re pretty confident we’ll reach our goal,” Devin says. “People keep saying they’re going to pledge but haven’t yet, so we’re expecting a spike at the end. But I’m not going to rest on that. I’m going to keep pushing as hard as I can.” Everyone who pledges is offered a reward, ranging from complimentary popcorn and drinks to a private showing of a movie of your choice for you and 100 friends.
If The Lewis reaches its goal, the theater will close for a week to upgrade before hosting a grand reopening celebration. All donors will be invited, but tickets will also be available. “We’ll have food, beverages, and live entertainment,” Devin says. “We’re hoping to play a movie from 1939—either Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind.” Surprisingly, they’ve never been able to play old movies because the original 35-millimeter reels of classics like Gone With the Wind are heavily guarded by collectors and museums. “These reels come in an 80-pound box. Before I can even play the movie, I have to spend hours splicing together the rolls,” Devin says. “With digital, the box will be four inches wide.” That will open up a lot of options—like choosing which previews precede a film and offering more than one movie per night in addition to a wider selection of new and old films.
Devin is excited to continue the legacy of The Lewis. “The Lewis has always been the heart of downtown. There’s a lot of camaraderie here,” he says. The staff knows when regulars will come and how they like their popcorn. When the credits roll, they pile into the lobby to discuss the film. Devin usually joins them. “That’s one of my favorite things about working here,” he says. “I’m always happy at the end of a movie. Even if I don’t remember anything about it an hour later, the experience itself always brings joy. It’s exciting to keep that going.”The Lewis Theatre, 113 North Court Street, Lewisburg, WV, 24901, 304.645.6038