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2008's offscreen drama at Kentucky Theatre

Fred Mills hadn't been feeling bad. But some odd things had been happening that he thought might be related to a cholesterol pill he'd been taking: stiff neck, discomfort in his back.

Sitting in his office at the Kentucky Theatre downtown, Mills steadily recalls the late summer conversation with his doctor, who told him to stop taking the pill and ran him through some tests that concluded Mills needed quadruple bypass surgery.

Talking about major heart surgery like it was just one of those things, Mills says, “I was just real pleased with the results and thought I recovered real well,”

The eventfulness of the situation might be more in the details, like how Mills spent a month away from the Kentucky, the longest he had been away from the theater he has managed since it reopened 17 years ago.

This has not been a typical year for the Kentucky. In addition to going without its caretaker for the early fall, the Kentucky has dealt with a changing film industry that is delivering a slower trickle of art-house films, the Kentucky's primary fare. The theater also regained its status as the only art house in town after Cinemark switched its multiplex at Lexington Green, which had been showing arty fare for about two years, into a discount cinema.

Despite the shifting landscape, Mills finds himself doing what he's often up to in late December: showing the movies that are getting some of the biggest buzz as awards season approaches.

“We probably have the two best pictures we could have gotten,” Mills says of his current lineup of Milk and Slumdog Millionaire.

Both films have received numerous Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and are considered front-runners in the Academy Awards race.

That's the way Mills likes it. He has an almost curatorial perspective on film, saying he takes pride in playing most of the films that end up in awards contention, even if they weren't big money makers for the theater.

“When all is said and done, it is surprising how many pictures the Kentucky Theatre has shown that end up on critics'-choice lists and win awards,” Mills says.

But there have been some big changes in the art-house and prestige film market over the past year. Several major studios have shuttered or consolidated their specialty shops, including Warner Independent, which released George Clooney's 2005 Oscar contender Good Night, and Good Luck.

Larry Thomas, the Kentucky's Cincinnati-based film booker, wrote in an e-mail, “Some major distributors seem to be tiring of handling non-mainstream pictures since their results have not been spectacular.”

At this time of year, those specialty studios keep the screens full, but the Kentucky experienced a drought of art-house fare early this summer. To fill the void, Thomas booked a few blockbusters, including Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Mills says, “These aren't the types of pictures we usually play. But they all turned out to be good choices, and they all brought in people who hadn't come to the theater before.”

Mills says he and the Kentucky Theatre staff could tell they were newcomers because people would ask which way to go or comment that concession prices were lower than at the multiplexes. Some just came up and said it was their first time.

“You always want to expand your audience,” Mills says.

This fall, the Kentucky lost its main competition to siphon off its audience. After opening the 16-screen Fayette Mall Cinema in 2006, Cinemark converted its nearby eight-screen Lexington Green theater into an art-house multiplex. In September, the theater was converted yet again, into a discount cinema.

Mills says the Kentucky never considered the Lexington Green theater a big threat.

“Granted, they'd still be running these pictures if they had been doing any business,” Mills says.

But now, the Kentucky is once again the only game in town for people who want to see specialty films, save for the ones that occasionally play on screens in the big multiplexes.

But even then, Mills has always maintained that there are customers who specifically want to see films at the Kentucky. For example, he cites Religulous, comedian Bill Maher's documentary about the beliefs of various world religions.

It played Fayette Mall on its nationwide opening week. But Mills had several requests for the film, so he played it a few months after its first run. He says it did respectable business.

“We get a number of requests like that, all the time — ‘If you all get a chance, we'd like to see this' — and we try to do that, if we can,” Mills says.

Interacting with the theater's customers is a subject Mills often returns to, recalling a woman who called from Florida while she was on vacation, just to see how the theater was doing.

Despite the economic recession, Mills says, the Kentucky is holding its own.

“When I talk to Larry, he knows what's going on at other theaters, and he says we're doing OK,” Mills says. “That may not sound great, but I take a certain comfort in knowing we're not doing any worse than anyone else.”

And after a year of a changing industry, economic turmoil, a little competition across town and, by the way, a quadruple bypass, Mills is happy to end 2008 “OK,” maybe even a little bit better than that.

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