Last week, the News & Observer reported that the Colony, which has operated in North Raleigh since 1994, will close in late December, as part of a plan to consolidate resources and fund improvements to parent company Ambassador Entertainment’s flagship, the Rialto, in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood. The Colony has a long history, opening as Six Forks Cinema in 1972. By the 1980s, it had become a second-run movie house. Then it was restored by Ambassador and reopened as a first-run art-house in 1994.
The two-screen Colony felt like a throwback to a different era of independent cinema, boasting wall carpeting so thick that fans would run at it to try to leave a handprint. (Merely pressing your hand into it had no effect; an impact was required.) In the lobby, it wasn’t unusual to see VHS tapes being given away, next to a bookshelf full of old paperbacks (including a novelization of TV’s Growing Pains that never seemed to get picked up). Patrons could pick up discarded posters for films that played there in the past before heading to the concession stand for some popcorn and soda, or possibly a draft beer.
There is a personable, film-club-like quality to the Colony. General manager Denver Hill, as big a fan of the films there as any ticket-holder, was always good for a chat about favorites, between handling customers and other responsibilities. The Colony's lobby is a gathering place for regulars of the theater’s various special screenings: the James Bond and Harry Potter films in order, Oscar-winning classics and my favorite, Cinema Overdrive, where deeply twisted grindhouse fare such as Vice Squad, Wild Foxes and Death Race 2000 were screened with classic trailers. Sometimes limited-run art prints based on the films were sold in the lobby as well; I still have the glow-in-the-dark one for Return of the Living Dead.
The Colony’s classic fare—recent screenings have included everything from the Gothic silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the African-American-led opera musical Carmen Jones—helped give it a distinct identity in a changing independent film scene. With many films being released to DVD and/or streaming services shortly after their theatrical runs—if, indeed, they play in theaters at all—fewer chances exist for films to break out on the big screen, where independent films can be lucky to have a shelf life of a week.
The volume of small films being produced today, along with competition from large-scale blockbusters just down the road at the Regal North Hills 14 multiplex, meant that it got harder to fit seeing newer movies on the Colony’s screens into my schedule. To my own regret, I missed a number of major films at the Colony, putting off my trips there for more of the special screenings, only barely catching recent favorites such as Snowpiercer and the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself.
Independent films will remain a part of the Triangle scene, but the loss of the Colony represents the decline of indie-centric theaters in the area. We already lost Cary's Galaxy Cinema, and the Varsity in Chapel Hill is now mainly a second-run theater. There are still many ways to see independent films, and the Carolina Theatre’s “Retro” series offers a steady stream of older films, but fewer and fewer places remain that, like the Colony, make independent cinema their main focus, fostering a sense of community for film fans that is rarely found at a giant multiplex.
Over on the Film Babble Blog, local film writer and Colony employee Daniel Johnson has solicited recollections of the Colony from longtime moviegoers; consider this my contribution and add your own. There’s still a few months left to enjoy films there, from the latest indie releases to older films, and from the classic to the classically profane. I think I’ll make some time next week to enjoy the Cinema Overdrive screening of The Slumber Party Massacre—while there’s still time.