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Madland: Madison's east side movie theater desert
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As reported in Isthmus, Marcus Theatres is closing Eastgate Cinema and replacing it with a new theater in Sun Prairie, named Palace Cinema at Prairie Lakes.

That means the most eastern theater in the city of Madison will be Sundance -- or the Marquee at Union South if you are generous.

The new Sun Prairie location is only a couple miles from Eastgate, but it is in a location that is even farther away on Madison's bus routes. Almost anyone who has been a UW-Madison student in recent years can remember piling into the car of a friend who had one in order to explore the options for cinematic glory out by the malls.

And while Madison's big multiplexes follow national trends and continue to move further and further out of the city, there is also the rise of urban boutique theaters. The building boom on East Washington seems like a natural fit for such a development, but I'm worried that market is already saturated in Madison.

It would be neat if the hipster-friendly east side could get an Alamo Drafthouse, the hipster-friendly boutique theater chain known for its amenities, deluxe seats and sporadic quirky film booking. But I'm not sure if there is a market here for it.

UW Cinematheque (and occasionally Sundance) takes care of the quirky film booking for Madison filmgoers. Cinematheque works hard to get 35 mm prints in a movie world that has rapidly switched over to digital projection. That's the sort of nerdy thing people like me care about, but we nerds are a tiny audience, particularly when digital projection has made it easier for theaters to stream live events or host revivals of classic movies. Most people interested in seeing Back to the Future on the big screen don't care if it is on a pristine, original 35 mm print.

The renovated Point Cinema and the forthcoming Palace Cinema both offer the amenities and deluxe seats of Alamo. They also have the high price tag associated with those amenities. It has gotten pricier and pricier to go out for a movie, so much so that the idea of taking a family of five to a one is laughable.

If the market for luxury and quirky cinema is flooded, what about going in the opposite direction?

Second-run theater Market Square on the west side is one of my favorite places in town to watch a movie. Three bucks to see a blockbuster on the big screen? Awesome. Sure, the movies are a few months old, but I neither have the time nor the money to see every movie I want to on their opening weekends. A solid date night for six bucks, if only it wasn't so far away from my home on the north side.

Market Square also rents out theaters for events and private screenings, as second-run theaters don’t have the restrictions their first-run brethren face should they cancel a screening for a private event. At the current west side location, the theater has held events ranging from the Madison Horror Film Festival to weddings. This seems like something the east side would eat up; we seem to have an unending supply of Wisconsin Uprising documentaries, I'm sure each could fill up a theater for a night.

The biggest hurdle for a second-run cinema on the east side is that we've repurposed all our old movie theater spaces. Generally, these operations are created at outdated first-run theaters. Like a hermit crab, the second-run theater moves into the abandoned shell. Our old downtown and near east-side theaters (the Majestic and Barrymore) are primarily concert spaces, while the old South Towne theater is now a gym and Eastgate will soon be rubble.

Unfortunately, while I think there would be a market for a second-run cinema on the east side, there's not really a space for it. I can't imagine a developer pitching a new complex on East Washington Avenue by saying "And on the first floor, we'll have a brand new theater charging $3 a head to watch five-month old movies!"

For folks on the east side of Madison, particularly those without a car, we might just have to suck it up and ask our friends for a ride, or wait until the movie gets to Netflix.

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