Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

The Commodore Theatre Story


Where a night at the movies is an unforgettable experience

by Rob Lauer

The Director of Unhinged Derrick Borte with his lovely wife

The Director of Unhinged Derrick Borte with his lovely wife

For 31 years, the historic Commodore Theatre in Olde Towne Portsmouth has been in continuous operation. Like many businesses, the only exception was during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"But we have been open since June 12, and following all guidelines for social distancing," says Fred Schoenfeld, the restorer, and owner of the historic theatre.
Social distancing at the Commodore is very different from social distancing in one of the national movie theatre chains- primarily because the Commodore itself was built during the golden age of movie palaces.

"This theatre was built 70 years ago- when theatres were built to last for centuries," Fred explains. "Movie theatres are a uniquely American creation. We still have more historic movie theatres in our country than anywhere else on earth, but many were torn down and replaced with multiplex theatres. Single-screen theatres like the Commodore are things of the past."
The Commodore's high ceilings, open spaces, and huge seating capacity (things that one simply cannot find in even the largest newer theatres), as well as the diligence of its staff in adhering to all social distancing guidance, ensures that all guest can view the latest Hollywood offerings safely.

Besides having restored this historic landmark theatre, Fred's enthusiasm for all things cinematic extends to his desire to promote film production in Virginia as well as the work of producers and directors with roots in the Old Dominion.  This was on full display at a recent showing of the Commodore's current offering, the new thriller Unhinged starring Russell Crowe and directed by Hampton Road-native, Derrick Borte. On that particular evening, Derrick Borte attended the showing and also took questions from the audience.  

"Derrick wanted to film Unhinged here in Virginia, but the state could not offer the financial incentives, so the film was shot in New Orleans," Fred explains. "That was a loss for our region."

"It used to be that nearly all major studio films were shot in Hollywood or New York," Fred continues. "Not so anymore. Most "Hollywood productions" are now filmed outside of Hollywood, in states across the country. It's more cost-efficient. States give the studios incentives to come shoot a film there in the form of tax breaks. A big studio production will go to a state to film, spend 30 million dollars while there hiring local crew members technicians, as well as hiring local actors for smaller roles and extras for crowd scenes. Of course, a significant part of the budget is spent on hotels, housing, and feeding everyone. That is 30 million dollars being pumped directly into the local community. In return, the state gives three million dollars back to the studio in tax cuts and such. In any rational world that I know of, having to give back one dollar for every ten dollars someone gives you is called a fantastic financial opportunity.

That's why every state has a film office: to entice studios to come there and film. Aside from the millions coming into a local economy, having a film shot locally is great national publicity for the state- and internationally when the film is released in Europe and Asia. But the Commonwealth of Virginia doesn't seem to think so."

"I encourage everyone to call your friendly legislature and tell them to increase the incentives for film production in Virginia and to better fund the Virginia Film Office in Richmond."
- Fred Schoenfeld

Social distancing at the Commodore Theatre still provides a one-of-a-kind experience

Social distancing at the Commodore Theatre still provides a one-of-a-kind experience

In the 1980s, a slew of big Hollywood films- among them the 1987 Best Picture nominee Broadcast News- were filmed in Virginia. When it comes to scenery, the Commonwealth has everything a Hollywood studio could need: rural, small-town, and urban settings; easy access to DC in the north; the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains to the west; the military installations, cities, and beaches of Hampton Roads, and, across the entire state, our nation's oldest historical sites- most of them beautifully preserved. But over the past decade, the incentives offered to Hollywood studios by the Virginia Film Office have become far less competitive than those offered by other states.

In 2016, Virginia lost out on a major Hollywood release that should have been an easy shoo-in for the state. The award-winning hit film, Hidden Figures, told the true story of three African-American female mathematicians working at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton in the early 1960s. The film's action took place in numerous well-known Hampton and Newport News locations, but Hollywood ended up shooting the film in Georgia.

"Georgia has an unlimited budget for promoting filming in the state," Fred points out.  After bringing in a record-setting $2.9 billion of spending from the TV and film industry during fiscal year 2019, Georgia is now known as "The Hollywood of the South."

"Hollywood production companies have millions of dollars that they have to spend somewhere," Fred continues. "That is money that would be spent directly in local economies. But Hollywood is going to go where they are offered the best incentives. I encourage everyone to call your friendly legislature and tell them to increase the incentives for film production in Virginia and to better fund the Virginia Film Office in Richmond."

Promoting film production in Virginia is just one of the causes for which Fred is passionate. Other causes have included restoring the nearly 90-year-old neighborhood movie theatre in Craddock's Historic Afton Square, and, until recently, rescuing Portsmouth's recently demolished 2,000-seat Willett Hall Auditorium.

Never wavering in his commitment to such efforts, Fred and his partner, Tiffany Brown, devote their day-to-day efforts in running the Commodore and ensuring that its guests have a movie-going experience they will find nowhere else.

"We started renting the theatre out for private showings," he says. "We have some good friends who have parents in their 80s. Worried about taking their parents out in a crowd where they might be exposed to the virus, they rented the entire theatre for only six people. And they had a wonderful evening!"

Heading into the fall, upcoming features at the Commodore will include the Christopher Nolan spy thriller Tenent and the long-anticipated Wonder Woman sequel.

"We would love to see all film-lovers here at the Commodore," Fred concludes with a smile.
"With social distancing in place, we offer the same delicious food, the same cheap prices, and as far as projection and sound technology are concerned, the best presentation of films to be found anywhere in the country."

Commodore Theatre

421 High Street
Portsmouth, VA 23704