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Movie Houses of Worship: Thomaston, Georgia’s Ritz Theatre Needs Digital Conversion Help

By  · Published on June 30th, 2013

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we highlight one theater that is in desperate need of saving. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

Ritz Theatre

Location: 114 S. Church Street, Thomaston, GA

Opened: March 13, 1927

No. of screens: 1

Current first-run titles: Monsters University (The Lone Ranger replaces it on Wednesday)

Somehow this column has become focused more and more on cinemas in need or already going out of business. It’s not that surprising, as independent movie theaters have long been struggling and now Hollywood’s abandonment of film prints is the last straw for a lot of movie houses. Fortunately there are crowdfunding sites to bring awareness to and donations from local communities that don’t want their historic venues to close. This week I’m showcasing a small town operation that I’ve personally never been to called the Ritz Theatre and Cafe. Located in Thomaston, GA, the place needs a full digital conversion costing $75,000.

After a week and a half, the theater’s Kickstarter campaign hasn’t raised a whole lot. I was alerted of the effort this morning via filmmaker Rian Johnson, who retweeted a local fan of the Ritz. “Can’t believe this theatre is probably not gonna make it,” she wrote, followed by a sad face emoticon. “I love it there.”

For the Ritz, it’s not just a matter of this being a landmark that has been in operation for almost all of its 86 years. For people in Thomaston, the next closest movie theater is 30 miles away (they used to have a drive-in but it’s been closed for years), and so this is also about the only nearby cinema for this town and the surrounding area potentially disappearing. That’s not an uncommon situation these days, and I imagine there are many among the population of 15,000 (that includes neighboring parts of Upson County) who stick to home entertainment and aren’t concerned about the theater. Maybe the Ritz needs help from outsiders like those of us who hate to see any community lose its film center and whatever culture remains there.

You can tell what kind of place the Ritz is and what kind of place Thomaston is by the Kickstarter campaign’s stressing of community. There’s the mention of how digital projection can bring local videos and school productions to the big screen. And it’s pointed how the town will lose out on a venue for kid’s birthday parties and other private events as well as a place of employment for high school students. Owner Amy Neal says she met her husband, co-owner Malcolm Neal here, and she had her first date here. The campaign video features a montage of locals talking about what the place means to them (apparently the popcorn is good, too). That attention to memories and the importance of maintaining a social hub of this sort should be more effective than it seems to be so far.

As far as I can tell, the Ritz has had a number of other renovations in recent years, from replacing the marquee to turning the balcony into a VIP section with bar tables, plush seats and access to the cafe menu. The business is said to only be breaking even and so past updates like those were done with local community fundraising (in March the Thomaston Zaxby’s held an event in which it donated proceeds towards the theater’s digital goal). The owners are often pretty open about how things are run at the Ritz and why certain things are the way they are. For example, this post on the theater’s Facebook page:

“Man of Steel (Superman)” will be shown on Thursday 13th at 7pm as a special showing arranged by Walmart. Tickets are only available at Walmart Thomaston for this show. The general contract terms for this movie were too high for us to afford for its opening. We would have to increase our prices and not show Monsters or Lone Ranger coming soon. If we had Digital, the cost would be lower, but we are still trying to raise the funds to do that. We plan to bring it for a week later.

The Ritz is about an hour and a half away from me, but this campaign has me wanting to not only help but certainly visit the place. Maybe even move to Thomaston for that small town life. It’s the sort of place we often only see in movies (though are quite common here in the South). The Ritz is across from the town square, which houses the Hill Valley-ish landmark county courthouse. For decades, Thomaston has been recognized as one of the best small towns in America to move to. And certainly part of that appeal is the local small businesses, including the Ritz. Let’s hope it does in fact make it.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.