On many nights, Armand Daiguillon was a renovation staff of one. Daiguillon, whose Paradigm Cinemas took over the Classic Gateway Cinema last year, has spent much of the past several months giving Fort Lauderdale’s oldest continuous cinema a makeover.
“It wasn’t necessarily something that was planned, it’s just something that kind of happened,” Daiguillon says of taking over the Gateway. “It’s something that, as a company, we had looked at previously, pre-Covid.”
Paradigm is not what you’d call a big operation; it had previously operated one other cinema, the former Last Picture Show in Tamarac, which Daiguillon shut down after taking over the Gateway. He then set about doing in Fort Lauderdale what he’d done in Tamarac.
“They had the same look, which I’ve done my best to fix,” he says. “Things hadn’t been updated in a very long time.
“We want to keep some of that classic look to it, but at the same time it needs to be a modern theater as well.”
Fans of the 72-year-old theater shouldn’t be too alarmed. The mid-century modern glamour is still there, as are the classic film posters in the lobby. Gone are details like carpet that had seen better years and a sort of dirt-and-aqua color scheme that probably wasn’t doing the walls a favor anymore. Daiguillon’s gone with understated elegance.
He’s also added things like larger seats and a full food menu to a theater that could already serve beer and wine, and that was known for its real-butter popcorn. He’s bringing in festivals and special showings of classic films. And he’s trying to keep price points low: a big bucket of that famous popcorn is $7.50 while ticket prices, which he notes are partially dictated by the film companies, include a $5 Tuesday special.
“The way we try to bring people in is by being affordable,” he says.
Daiguillon’s also diversifying the four-screen cinemas film offer, showing more Hollywood films and family movies alongside its traditional arthouse fare. He even wants to install a stage and look at live events such as stand-up comedy. All this, he says, is what an independent cinema has to do to survive today.
During the days of pandemic lockdown and closed cinemas, film companies began releasing films straight to streaming platforms, and they haven’t really stopped. At one point near the end of 2022, fewer than 70 films had been given a wide release in cinemas, down a third from the same point in 2019. Daiguillon is blunt about the challenges.
“Things have changed post-Covid for theaters,” he says. “It’s really bad.”
It wasn’t necessarily easy to run an independent cinema before the pandemic, but you could survive with arthouse and foreign movies plus the occasional big-budget Hollywood film here and there.
Now with so many fewer films in wide release, smaller cinemas are struggling to find things to put on the screen, Daigullon says.
“The problem we’re running into right now, we’ve tried to diversify the films we show,” he says. “The problem is that there’s not as much product out there. After Covid, the studios are spending half of their money on streaming.”
Large chain theaters are booking whatever they can, including some of the smaller arthouse films that used to be the territory of places like the Gateway.
“They’re now playing all the arthouse stuff that they didn’t play before because they don’t have anything either,” he says.
“Right now, we can take whatever we can get to put on screen because there are no movies. In the future, we would like to be a little of something for everyone – something families can see, something seniors and the arthouse crowd can see.” Right now though? “We show whatever we can get.”
That will get somewhat better soon – films typically get released more than a year or two after they’re made, so the industry is now in the midst of a film dearth due in large part to the temporary pandemic shutdown. But even when production is back at full force, straight-to-streaming won’t go away.
Beyond that, crowds and business models have shifted. A major chunk of Daiguillon’s profits come not from showing films, but from selling food and drink at the concession stand. Hence a menu that includes beer, wine and full meals. He knew there was a problem when he first took over the theater and there was only one cash register at the concession stand. Now there are five.
He hopes that Paradigm can bring stability to a cinema that’s struggled to find it in recent years. After closing during the pandemic, the cinema was taken over by the not-for-profit group that runs the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival as well as the city’s independent Savor Cinema and another independent cinema in Hollywood.
Daiguillon reached out when he saw the organization start a GoFundMe page to fund renovations. “It turned out that it wasn’t quite what they had expected,” he says. “So we ended up taking it over.
“If you look at the history of the Gateway, it’s been through a thousand different operators and none have lasted terribly long.”
Paradigm’s remodel shows Daiguillon’s commitment to the long term. But without more people coming through the doors, that commitment won’t matter. Families, younger people, cinema fans who might not have been to the Gateway before – more people need to walk through the doors.
“Otherwise,” he says, “we won’t be there terribly long either, to be blunt.”