The line snaked out the door and down Main Street in downtown Franklin.
Festive moviegoers packed into the Historic Artcraft Theatre, hoping to catch one of their favorite holiday classics such as “Home Alone” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
Every weekend, every show in December proved to be the same scene. Sellouts were so prevalent that theater officials needed to add showings just to meet the demand.
[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery
“It’s an experience. Specifically at Christmastime, the place is so packed with people, and you don’t get that at too many other theaters,” said Rob Shilts, executive director at Franklin Heritage, which operates the theater. “There aren’t too many other places that have 625 seats.”
For a small-town movie theater, the Artcraft is putting up big numbers. The restored theater’s most successful Christmas season ever brought to a close the most well-attended year yet. More than 43,600 people came to the theater in 2017, including 16,000 from mid-November to mid-December alone.
“We’re just excited that people are taking a chance on what we’re doing. They’re buying into the restoration. They’re buying into the preservation,” said David Windisch, marketing director for the Artcraft.
The past three years have shown a marked growth for the Artcraft. In 2015, the theater set a record by showing 32 films. More than 21,900 people came to the Artcraft that year, another high-water mark.
The next year featured 40 films and an attendance of 33,445 people. And 2017 topped them all. The Artcraft presented a lineup of 55 movies, and 43,672 people came to see those films.
“It’s just growing and growing. We looked at some of the numbers, and realized last year that just regular weekend movies — not special events or anything — that used to draw 300 people were now getting 400 and 500 people,” Shilts said.
But the Christmas season has become a different beast for the theater. From Nov. 17 to the end of December, 16,026 people came to the theater for weekend movies, field trips and a live radio broadcast of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Half of those people were first-time attendees to the Artcraft, Shilts said.
“It’s been a really great thing to bring in so many new people to the theater, and show them what we’re doing here,” he said. “They’re hearing about it from a friend or somebody they know, and they’re looking for a movie experience they can’t get anywhere else.”
The movies are so popular that organizers have had to adjust and adapt their schedule.
They started the holiday-themed films earlier this year, starting with “Miracle on 34th Street” in mid-November and continuing every weekend until Dec. 17. They added Sunday screenings for each of the five holiday movies being shown.
Of the 27 total screenings considered part of the holiday schedule, 17 of those were sellouts, Windisch said.
The weekends featuring “Home Alone” and “Christmas Vacation” each brought in more than 3,000 people.
“Home Alone” sold out so quickly that the theater added a sixth show.
“We sold another 300 tickets for that in just a couple of days, and saw how well that was received, so we again added a sixth show for ‘Christmas Vacation’ and sold that out too,” Windisch said.
Box-office receipts for the Christmas season show that among theaters that screened “Home Alone” this year, the Artcraft was the most successful nationwide. The weekend gross was $12,177, which represented more than 2 percent of the entire country’s market share for the film this year.
But while the Artcraft has become a beloved weekend diversion for Johnson County residents, its growing attendance is testament to its reputation as a regional and statewide attraction.
Tracking ticket sales, theater officials routinely notice customers come from Carmel, Fishers, Avon and other central Indiana communities.
Special mini film festivals, such as weekends devoted to Alfred Hitchcock movies or those by director Tim Burton, have brought people to town from Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky — and even from as far away as Pennsylvania.
Officials have slowly tried to spread their mission and offerings, partnering with organizations such as Heartland Film on events that get attention from all over the Midwest.
“It’s amazing how many folks around the state are finding out about it,” Shilts said.
The success isn’t just a boon for the theater and its restoration mission. When people come to Franklin on the weekend for a film, they’re also coming early or staying afterwards to shop, eat and attend festivals in the city.
“That’s always been the goal — to be more than a movie theater. We want people to come and stay, to spread that dollar out,” Windisch said.
From the time when the restoration of the Artcraft started and the theater reopened in 2004, officials saw it as an anchor that could help spur the revitalization of Franklin’s downtown. That has come to fruition.
Shilts points to the famous photograph from Life magazine, which featured a packed downtown Franklin in its Dec. 2, 1940, issue, as the goal.
“We want to get it to that point, so that there are just all of these mom-and-pop shops, all of these restaurants, that are not only surviving but thriving,” he said.
In recent years, projects have been completed to improve the heating and cooling system, restore the marquee outside and stabilize the theater structure.
The next step in the restoration process will be improving the Artcraft stage to better handle theater, music and other live performances.
The 95-year-old wooden grid that is intended to hold the stage mechanisms cannot support the movie screen or velvet curtain; those have had to be dead hung off added steel structure.
New steel beams are needed to support the wooden grid, so that they can install power hoists and other modern equipment for the stage, Shilts said.
That project is slated to cost about $250,000, though Franklin Heritage officials have a grant application in to the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology for a $50,000 matching grant.
With a better equipped stage, the Artcraft can increase its booking of traveling performers, such as the shows they’ve featured recently with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Shilts said.
“If you have a traveling act coming through Indiana, they can stop here, do a performance during the weekdays,” he said. “We’ve been able to work with their routing and schedule them when otherwise they would just be traveling through.”
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”If you go” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
Historic Artcraft Theatre
What: A restored theater originally built in 1922 that features classic movies from all eras on the big screen.
Where: 57 N. Main St., Franklin
Who: Operated by Franklin Heritage, a preservation organization focuses on saving the city’s unique structures.
Upcoming Artcraft events
Today: “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” 2 and 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $5 for adults, $4 for military veterans, seniors and college students, $3 for kids 12 and under.
Feb. 3: Sponsorship part fundraiser and 2018-2019 film series unveiling, 6 p.m., with the unveiling at 7:30 and bidding starting at 8. Tickets are $15.
Feb. 9 and 10: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” 2 and 7:30 p.m. both days; tickets are $5 for adults, $4 for military veterans, seniors and college students, $3 for kids 12 and under.