Teens Make Their Big-Screen Dream Come True for Town

Special to The Times

Seven girls had a vision they wouldn't let go: They dreamed of a new movie theater downtown.

Unhappy that this Northern California town's one cinema had closed, they lobbied the City Council and met with theater owners, a developer and even Lucasfilm Ltd. executives to argue that Petaluma, population 56,000, could sustain a theater. To prove their point, they developed a business plan and an annual profit-and-loss statement.

And they did all this while in junior high.

Now, 3 1/2 years later, this picturesque Sonoma County city has a new 12-screen multiplex, the anchor tenant of a $100-million office, retail and residential redevelopment project.

The Boulevard Cinemas opened with much hoopla May 17, with the seven teens as featured guests. They arrived at the opening-night party in vintage automobiles, wearing ball gowns and posing for photos near their own gold stars embedded in the sidewalk outside the theater.

Each girl was presented with a $2,500 college savings bond from the developer, lifetime movie passes from the theater owner and plaques from the city.

"I was impressed with their persistence and their drive to see this thing through," said Matt White, owner of Basin Street Properties, which has undertaken the seven-block downtown renovation of empty car lots and old warehouses, some not occupied for 50 years.

The girls, who refer to themselves as the "Superb Seven," were hanging out one Friday night in November 2001, complaining that they had no place to see a movie since the last theater had closed earlier that year. If they wanted to see a show, they had to persuade a parent to drive them 20 minutes north to Rohnert Park.

"It was like a lightbulb going off in our heads at the same time," Taylor Norman, 16, said. "Why don't we open a movie theater?"

"The grown-ups will never do it," Elizabeth Comstock, 15, said, recalling the teens' refrain that evening.

With encouragement from Patty Norman, Taylor's mother, the seven slept over at the Normans' home every Wednesday night for two years, brainstorming and making plans for a theater, which they wanted to operate with seven screens, each named after one of them.

As part of their research, they met with owners of the Rio Theatre, a one-screen facility in the Russian River community of Monte Rio. They learned about ordering movies, splicing film, sweeping up after patrons and, most important, that the snack bar is the big moneymaker.

"They were really energetic kids," said Don Schaffert, who owns the Rio with his wife, Suzi. "They were like sponges. It was unbelievable."

The girls next sought out a vice president of finance for a large theater chain to learn more about the business. They also pored over a book on how to write business plans.

Eventually, they were ready to put numbers to paper. In their proposal, they estimated how much net earnings a Petaluma theater would take in each month, and even included photos of possible theater sites.

The teens wrote to George Lucas, asking for a meeting. Lucas didn't attend, but four of his top executives met with them in a conference room at the company's San Rafael headquarters.

"Here they were in junior high. They were in business attire. They took my breath away," said Jeanne Cole, former publicity director for Lucasfilm.

"They had their little name tags. They kind of took over," she added.

Their first request startled the movie company executives. The teens asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

Although this is not something they normally do, Gordon Radley, the now-retired president of Lucasfilm, signed the agreement. Then the teens made their pitch.

"To me, it wasn't just that they prepared this and rehearsed their presentation. We then grilled them and they had answers for everything," Radley said.

But he and the others didn't know what the teens wanted because Lucas makes films, he doesn't run theaters.

It turned out, Radley recalled, that the seven wanted advice, although one of the teens piped up that maybe the company could help out financially.

Cole said the Lucas executives, who were by then enthusiastic about the theater idea, suggested the girls come up with something to attract publicity -- "something that will put you on the map."

Three weeks later, Cole got a call from the teens, who said they wanted to do a free screening of "American Graffiti" -- a 1973 Lucas film with scenes shot in Petaluma.

After getting a print of the film, the teens projected it on the side of an old building downtown in October 2002, drawing a crowd of about 500 people despite the chilly air. In the meantime, Radley called several theater owners and asked them to listen to the girls' idea, and take them seriously. The teens met with one executive who operated theaters in neighboring Marin County and said he didn't believe that Petaluma could support a theater, recalled Liza Hall, 16, one of the Superb Seven.

Owners of the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, outside downtown, approached the girls and asked for their support for a theater in the mall. But the teens stood their ground and insisted that any new theater should be downtown so it could be within walking distance, they said.

Along with a professional approach, the teens also added youthful touches to their lobbying. When White, the project's eventual developer, did not return their calls, they would send him Girl Scout cookies. He would call back the next day.

Now, six of the teens -- Sarah Marcia, Noelle Bisson, Ashley Ditmer, Norman and Hall, all 16, and Comstock -- not only can walk to the theater, they also work there part-time as ushers or concession-stand employees. The seventh girl, Madison Webb, 16, has moved to Sacramento with her family.

"I told them to never, ever give up on their vision because it can happen," Mayor David Glass said.

With the theater and other developments, Glass sees a new life in the struggling downtown, largely crediting the renewal to the girls' perseverance.

"We're going to thrive," Glass said. "From this point forward, it's rock 'n' roll."

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