Philly is scheduled to get its next big multiplex in January 2019, when AMC Theaters opens an eight-screen cinema in the revamped Gallery. But this winter, film lovers have somewhere a little more intimate to take in a flick, thanks to the newly opened South Street Cinema.
The pop-up movie house at 327 South St. was the idea of South Street Headhouse District assistant director Bill Arrowood. Formerly a clothing store, the space is now a 40-seat theater that screens films four days a week for a suggested $5 donation per person. Popcorn is included with admission, and light refreshments are available.
Don’t, however, expect first-run flicks, like Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The movie house features retro favorites, B-movies, horror, and other weirdo cinema. Screenings are often organized around themes, like “Oh, the Horror Saturdays” and “Classic Thursdays,” thanks to partnerships with the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival and the B-movie and horror aficionados at Mondo Philly. There’s even a family-friendly weekend matinee, in case something like 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano isn’t your thing.
“We’re trying to make a difference in what people perceive as being good about South Street,” Arrowood says. “We want to create something that is both timeless and unique, and something people will want to go and see. Otherwise, it’s just me in a big storefront watching movies by myself.”
So far, Arrowood has avoided that fate. Since its soft opening in November, South Street Cinema has screened Christmas classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, action flicks like Die Hard, and kids’ movies like Frozen. Arrowood says that the theater is still finding its niche but that most screenings to date have drawn decent crowds.
The region has other theaters that show repertory films, like the Prince, the Ambler, and the Bryn Mawr, but South Street offers a consistent and wide range of fan-friendly fare (think Three Stooges marathons or The Fantastic Four) and genre movies. It also will expand to include live stand-up comedy nights on Sundays in January (Doogie Horner and the Legendary Wid are scheduled to perform) and RiffTrax screenings (think Mystery Science Theater 3000-style movies meant to be made fun of).
Arrowood also plans more theme nights, like a Bollywood night with food from Indian restaurant Lovash or a “Kung Faux” program of overdubbed kung fu movies. Local filmmakers, Arrowood says, have approached him about hosting premieres.
A native of Chestertown, Md, Arrowood has been around the film industry since he was 16, when he got a job working as a projectionist in his hometown movie theater.
“I learned to operate films on old projectors that were installed in 1933, the same year that King Kong came out,” he says, adding that he later got a job at one of the last drive-ins in Pennsylvania “because I understood how to work on machines that are 50 years old.”
Film ultimately brought Arrowood to Philadelphia in the 1990s, when he attended Temple University as a radio, television, and film major, and he worked on a number of projects that included an internship on the 1995 Philly-shot Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys.
A 15-year career as a location scout and manager followed; Arrowood’s CV includes such projects as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, Arrowood’s final film project. He joined the South Street Headhouse District about two-and-a-half years ago, and now finds “innovative, new ways to keep South Street relevant.”
“I really think that is my calling on South Street — to try to build community and let commerce follow,” Arrowood says. “It’s a lot of logistics, a lot of working with the neighbors, and trying to make the world a better place with the means that you’re given.”
For South Street Cinema, those means came along when Arrowood struck a deal with Triad Realty to open the theater in a property the company owns. Triad, Arrowood says, offers discounted rent to the theater, which will move if someone agrees to pay the company’s full asking price for rent on the space.
Equipment for the theater, including chairs, the screen, and curtains, is on loan from the now-closed Society Hill Playhouse, formerly at Eighth and Lombard. Arrowood forged a relationship with the playhouse’s owners during a run of his Liberty City Radio Theatre, a live, old-time-radio-style act that ended up being the theater’s final curtain call. Through that friendship, he was inspired to carry on the playhouse’s spirit through any means possible, even if it’s just using their curtains.
“It’s like carrying home plate from one stadium to another stadium,” he says. “You carry a small piece of it with you. That way, a part of that world carries on. We feel like we’re bringing a new theater to life.”
If the theater is successful, Arrowood hopes South Street can be seen as a place for entertainment overall. In a perfect world, he says, that would lead to similar venues in the neighborhood, furthering South Street’s artistic rep. Though, he says, that may be a way off.
“It’s like the Marvel universe,” he says. “You have to have phase one before you do phase two. Running a theater on South Street is really phase one for me of trying to bring more lively arts options to the neighborhood. Every weekend has been better. As movie geeks and cinephiles find us, it is growing.”