Can a locally-owned, ethnically distinct art movie theater succeed where New York City sophisticates failed? This was the overriding question as I made my first visit to the gorgeously redecorated Galaxy Cinema in Cary, which opened Dec. 30 in the space formerly known as Madstone. But first, there's the lobby.
Above the concession stand is a huge mural of paparazzi with cameras raised. Actual light bulbs are installed in the cameras, and they gently pop away as the visitor's eye scans the rest of the space. My own eye traveled up one of the dawn-blue walls, hopped over a false cornice that conceals lights aimed at a now-midnight blue ceiling. And on the ceiling are thousands of twinkling lights, simulating the galaxy of stars that's promised by the theater's name.
"There's a shooting star once in a while," theater manager Jon Morgan says to me. "Wait a second." We look upward and wait for the slow streak of lights to emerge.
So, the redesign is the first appealing thing about the new facility, located in the Cary junction created by Maynard Road and Cary Towne Boulevard. But it's the prospect of local ethnic ownership that is most exciting and promises to build on the notable successes of its predecessor.
Madstone, of course, was the six-screen theater that brought in an impressively eclectic slate of films during its two years of operation before shutting down last summer. Despite missteps as a national chain that doomed the local outlet, Madstone was a vital presence on the local art house menu, frequently bringing in films not otherwise available locally.
Their most notable success was tapping into the huge local market for Bollywood extravaganzas. When promoter Hemanth Kashindrath began booking India's inimitable epic musicals two years ago, the effect was electrifying. Suddenly, there were long lines and packed theaters, as Indian families (as well as enterprising non-natives) from all over the area came to Madstone for the three- and four-hours-long extravaganzas. Now, Kashindrath and a group of South Asian investors are betting that Bollywood can form the cornerstone of a successful local business.
Kashindrath booked Madstone's Bollywood offerings from his home in Charlotte, but these days the 28-year-old whom Morgan admiringly describes as "a real rocking dude" lives and works in Boulder, Colo. "I work as a computer nerd," Kashindrath told me last week by phone, "but my real passion is movies." Kashindrath grew up in Bangalore, which happens to be one of the satellite production centers of an industry typically associated with Bombay. "It's right behind Madras and Hyderabad. Bangalore produces three movies a week," Kashindrath says.
His exposure to film culture began early because his father worked in the industry. The movie-mad son (whose favorite film by his favorite director is Kubrick's The Shining) nonetheless took a prudent bachelor's degree in India before coming to America in 1999 to study for a masters in computer engineering at UNC-Charlotte. Now happily residing in Boulder, he writes business software during the day and attends to his theater in North Carolina by phone and e-mail at night. He also flies in once a month.
As it happens, Kashindrath is a minority partner and resident movie expert in an investment group that includes three men with significant mainstream business expertise, all of whom are mainstays of the Triangle's South Asian community. The majority partners are Nagi Reddy, owner of the Udupi Cafe (and supplier of weekend samosas to the Galaxy concession stand) and Siva Allu, owner of the Triangle Indian Market. The other minority partner is Kirit Padia, who owns a construction company and, along with Kashindrath, has the most involvement in the theater's daily operations.
After a weekday afternoon spent at the Galaxy, I found myself wondering if I could be in the Triangle's most culturally eclectic venue. Over the course of three hours, I mingled with white collar Caryites choosing among four films that contained the linguistic and cultural influences of Thai, Japanese, Hindi, French, Russian and three variants of English. I was there to see La Petite Lili, a French take on Chekhov's The Seagull, but I opted instead for Last Life in the Universe, a highly praised Thai film from a couple of years ago that is only getting a local theatrical release now, thanks to the Galaxy. The film was a delicately surreal tale of a Japanese cultural ambassador living and working in Thailand, and the better part of the film concerns his brief rural idyll with a Thai girl. Neither speaks the other's language very well, so they chiefly communicate in broken English (though subtitles helped me and the three others in the theater with some of the more unorthodox enunciations of our tongue). It's a lush, slow film; not much happens between three brief spasms of violence, but the Thai sex trade and yakuza thuggery hover above this delicate romance.
Afterward, I spoke with two of my fellow weekday afternoon moviegoers. One, a young Cary lawyer, enthusiastically compared the pace and rural desolation of the film to last year's The Return, a Russian film that he saw at Madstone. "I come here because I don't want to see Men in Black II," he said. "I hope people will support this theater. What they get here is different from what they get at the Raleigh Grande."
Another viewer, Carl Rich, a longtime Cary resident and engineer, confessed to being slightly disappointed by the execution of Last Life in the Universe, but he said the film appealed to him nonetheless. "I like to learn things about other cultures when I see movies," he said, citing the Inuit epic The Fast Runner as an example.
Next, I dropped in on the week's Bollywood offering, Swades, a rural epic from the director of the 2002 critical and commercial smash Lagaan that was midway through its running time of three hours and 45 minutes. Local movie diva and Bollywood enthusiast Laura Boyes had told me of encountering 35 or 40 people at a Monday matinee, but it was lighter today, with a dozen or so patrons all seated in the last few rows of the 354-seat screening room. I took a seat in the middle of the theater and watched Shah Rukh Khan strut his stuff. Khan is India's biggest star, and, in a Fellini-esque movie-love sequence, Khan led a group of villagers, who'd gathered for an outdoor movie screening, into a rousing production number about the wondrous constellations in the sky (and, in the process, I realized later, nicely evoked the lobby of the Galaxy theater).
I left Kahn and the film's weird King James subtitles ("He who wieldeth the plough shall reapeth the gold") for the monosyllabic Queens English of the musical film next door, a Ramones documentary called End of the Century. On the screen, various witnesses were explaining the genesis of "53rd and 3rd," Dee Dee's corrosive reminiscence of his days hustling his body for heroin (in Bollywoodese the lyric would go, "I wieldeth the blade, to proveth I'm no sissy"). Though the concert footage is awesome, I decided to save the rest of the film, also highly recommended by the Cary lawyer I'd met earlier, for another day.
As lushly appealing as Galaxy is, both Morgan and Kashindrath acknowledge that there are formidable hurdles for such a large space to thrive under independent ownership. For starters, there's the problem that bedeviled Madstone: How to acquire popular movies in the face of an established and saturated local movie market. The area's other art houses have longstanding ties to the major indie distributors, and it will take time for Galaxy to compete on a level footing for such indie hits as Sideways and Fahrenheit 9/11. Then there's Consolidated Crossroads, the 20-screen colossus down the street that is all too happy to pick up the occasional indie smash. Morgan, who worked in audience services for Madstone, concedes the issue, but says, "We'll try to build up our bargaining power over time. I talk to Hemanth every day. 'Here's a screener, what do you think, here's how it's performed elsewhere.' I have a lot of faith in him."
In the meantime, Galaxy has the Bollywood market cornered, and this could go a long way toward keeping the theater afloat. But only one of the six screens will have a Bollywood offering, leaving five more screens and thousands of square feet to fill. "If [Bollywood revenues] can cover 25 percent of our costs, we'll be in really good shape," Kashindrath says, adding that he hopes to move the operation into the black in six or eight months.
For now, the Galaxy is making do with three screens, but both Morgan and Kashindrath are confident that the theater will be fully operational by the end of February, if not Valentine's Day weekend.
Showtimes and driving directions for the Galaxy Cinema can be found at mygalaxycinema.com.