Moviegoers celebrated the first day of summer at Wimberley’s Corral Theater on June 21 with an out-of-season singalong fund-raiser. As the sun set on the summer solstice, 202 Hill Country residents belted out the lyrics to “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” alongside the snow-covered, computer-generated characters of the Disney movie Frozen.
The scene would have seemed odd at an urban megaplex, but the Corral takes pride in being an exception. The Corral bills itself as the only outdoor ‘walk-in’ movie theater in the nation that regularly shows first-run movies. Seeing a film here means sitting on picnic blankets and lawn chairs beneath the twinkling Texas sky.
With a soundtrack by cicadas and air-conditioning by a Blanco River breeze, the Corral calls to mind a different era—one in which tickets still cost $5, popcorn costs a buck, and there is an intermission during which film reels are changed and prizes are announced.
But the 66-year-old theater now faces the need to modernize.
For fifteen years, major film studios have been phasing out the production and distribution of 35-millimeter projection film prints, and as of this year, first-run films are almost exclusively available through digital hard drives and compatible only with digital projectors. The Corral, which has been using 35-millimeter film reels since its opening in 1948, must raise $55,000 for a digital projector in order to continue showing new releases.
The Corral, which is owned by 88-year-old Mary Anderson, only makes a profit of $6,000 a year from three screenings a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. So like many other independent, small-town theaters, the Corral has turned to the community for help.
“What we have seen is a lot of ingenuity in terms of how small theaters are going to their patrons, or they’re going to Kickstarter, or they’re going to various other ways of raising funds,” said Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer for the National Association of Theatre Owners. “For some, it’s going to be tough and some will be left behind.”
The Corral has been trying to raise money with a mix of old and new methods. After receiving its final first-run film reels, Disney’s Planes, the Corral started a homespun fund-raising effort. Friends and family of the Corral have sold baked goods and T-shirts at market days, cooked hot dogs and set up fresh lemonade stands. In addition, they have hosted singalong fund-raisers, playing fan-favorites like “Frozen” on a table-mounted DVD projector next to a donation jar.
The theater has also networked through Facebook and set up a “Keep the Corral” crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.com. And the efforts have paid off: So far the theater has raised close to $47,000 and the campaign page has garnered roughly 200 donations from patrons from Austin to Australia.
“When we have Western movies and there are horses running and neighing in the movies, our horses come out from the pasture, come up to the fence and see what’s going on,” said Anderson, the Corral’s owner. Her horses also enjoy the fresh popcorn.
Teri Carter, the manager, said the theater has been an integral part of the community. The theater has given many Wimberley residents their first jobs, Carter said. It also donates leftover concessions to nearby Deer Creek nursing home, hosts local fund-raisers and offers entertainment “families can afford.”
Carrie Donovan, a longtime patron who grew up in Houston and now lives in Denver, still makes the annual trip each summer to the Corral’s Masonite hardboard screen. When she married in April, the couple hosted a rehearsal cocktail party at the theater. Instead of wedding gifts, the newlyweds asked guests for donations to keep the Corral alive.
“The Corral was that big of a part of our history that we decided to make it the place we’d spend our Friday evening with all our guests,” Donovan said. “My dad passed away six years ago now, and it’s a place where my mom and dad would also go. There was no question, you were always going to the Corral if you were up in Wimberley.”
But the Corral is not just up against the cost of modernization and upkeep—including a recent battle with squirrels and vermin. The Corral also faces competition from theaters in San Marcos and Kyle, where EVO Entertainment is opening in late November a 70,000-square-foot entertainment megaplex featuring fourteen lanes of bowling, an arcade floor and eleven digitally projected theaters.
But Kate Hatfield, Anderson’s 26-year-old great-niece and the heir to the Corral, is confident in the theater’s future, thanks to the community’s overwhelming support.
“We’ve had people offer to buy it; I don’t think they understand that it’s part of our home,” she said. “We’ll keep putting on fund-raisers, we’ll keep washing cars and singing songs and baking, we’ll keep making food and talking to the community and trying to get the word out there. We won’t give it up and we won’t stop fund-raising.”