It's 10 a.m. on a foggy January morning, and a crowd of about 100 is gathered in the lobby of the Galaxy Cinema in Cary. The locals aren't here to see an early matinee, though. They're here to pick over the bones of the beloved cinema space, which closed its doors for good in November.
In front of the lobby doors, a commercial RV has been set up to register bidders for the all-day auction about to commence. Inside the theater, everything that can be picked up (or unbolted or unscrewed) and carted away has been tagged with a lot number. The box office desk. The popcorn machine. Speakers. Track lighting. Even the garbage cans.
And then there are 1,334 movie theater seats, six refrigerator-size film projectors and 212 35-mm films, still in their cans.
Since 2004, the Galaxy had been a popular destination for film fans in the Triangle area. In addition to screening art house titles passed over by the area's multiplex franchise theaters, the Galaxy regularly booked Indian Bollywood films to an appreciative local audience. Previously, the theater was home to two other movie houses.
When the Galaxy shut down last year, the owners of the business took away what they wanted and the rest defaulted to York Properties, which manages the building for the landowner. The building won't survive: York has announced plans to build a 53,000-square-foot Harris Teeter grocery store on the property.
If derelict storefront buildings are inherently sad, abandoned movie theaters are almost unbearably depressing—for film lovers, anyway. Throughout the Galaxy's two-story, six-cinema space are gloomy tableaux suggesting good times gone forever. A 30-pound bag of Orville Redenbacher popcorn sits on a bare shelf. Next to a giant projector rig on the upper floor, a whiteboard sign is still scrawled with the show times. A Bukowski novel rests on a ledge nearby, suggesting one projectionist's diversion between reels.
In a stairwell, four unopened boxes of "Xenon Short Arc Optic Lamps for Projectors" are stacked in a corner. Hundreds of presumably unsold $10 Galaxy Theater gift certificates are strewn across the floor of a storeroom. In the breakroom, a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream still sits in the fridge.
Two of the cinema's six theaters have been converted into holding spaces for the auction. As advertised, more than 200 35-mm feature films, still in their canisters and burlap-wrapped shipping boxes, are stacked against the walls. Two boxes of movie posters are wrapped up in cardboard tubes, the labels reading like a retrospective of recent indie films and documentaries: Winter's Bone. Win/Win. Escape Fire. The Kids Are Alright. Made in Dagenham. Incendies. Mozart's Sister. Gasland.
Adam Hulin—filmmaker, collector and co-founder of the Cinema Overdrive film series at Raleigh's Colony theater—is browsing through the canisters. He's hoping to find some hidden gems. "I figured a lot of it would be Bollywood, but I hoped there might be a couple of cool indie films," Hulin says.
Hulin isn't the only visitor looking to scavenge old prints. Andrew Rodgers, executive director of the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, is also roaming the auction. Rodgers works closely with the School of Filmmaking at the UNC School of the Arts, which maintains its own archive of 35-mm movies. "I'm here kind of unofficially," Rodgers says.
Back in the theater lobby, auctioneer Randy Wester is going over the ground rules. Randy runs a professional, no-nonsense operation. "Let's talk about payment," he calls out to the crowd. "You must pay for your merchandise today. Do not leave here without paying for your merchandise. Don't make me chase you down."
Wester Auction & Realty is contracted regularly by property management companies when a business goes under. This morning, the crew uses a wireless microphone rig to auction off each lot. The auctioneer caller, Rick Lashmit, sings out each bid in that sing-song cadence so familiar from ... well, from movies.
Moving through the lobby first, the auctioneers sell off each lot with quick, practiced efficiency. The concierge sign goes for $20. Two digital projectors—used in happier days to paint the Galaxy's lobby ceiling in a sea of stars—are a steal at $90. The industrial-size espresso machine sparks a bidding war. It eventually sells for $390.
Wester says later that he figures about half the crowd are veteran auction bidders—re-sellers who scavenge for deals on commercial equipment. His regular customers. The other half are what he calls novices—casual buyers and specialty collectors like Hulin and Rodgers who might be interested in a particular item.
Karen Brown, property manager with York Properties, is also on hand for the sale. Brown hired Wester's outfit for the auction and says she's pleased to see such a big turnout. "We wanted to give back what we could to the community," Brown says. "We've got all these replacement parts with these projection systems. The auction is a way to re-use and recycle those things."
After making their payments at the RV (all major credit cards accepted), the buyers simply grab up their items and carry or wheel them out to the parking lot. The auction proceeds and the Galaxy is dismantled, item by item.
With the exhibition business switching from 35-mm film projection to digital systems, old-school movie house like the Galaxy are necessarily among the first wave of casualties, Hulin says.
"It's going to kill a lot of dollar theaters and small town theaters," Hulin says. "With their profit margins, they're not going to be able to switch over to digital. A new digital system is going to be at least 80 grand."
As the older movie houses either convert to digital or shut down, the secondhand market is being flooded with old 35-mm projectors and other equipment. "They're practically giving this stuff away now," Hulin says.
The auction seems to bear him out. The six giant film projectors end up selling for around $200 each. As for those stacks of 35-mm feature films? A few niche collectors bid individually on specific titles, but the 136 films in Auction Item 107 sell, as a lot, for $1 each.
In the concession area storeroom, Kathryn Dunlop of Fuquay-Varina is looking over a shelf full of popcorn seasoning and Italian ice syrups. Dunlop says she occasionally comes to commercial auctions to find home furnishings or kitchen stuff. "I thought maybe we could find something for our home theater setup, maybe just a sign or decoration," she says.
"It's nice to have a piece of history. We can say, 'Oh, yeah, this is from the old Galaxy.'"