Some NJ movie theaters close, others persevere as industry adjusts to changing times

by STEPHEN WHITTY

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The neighborhood movie theater, once a common community hub, is disappearing faster than ever. And little is replacing it, on our streets or in people’s hearts.

Just recently, in Ridgewood, the old Warner theater — a local institution whose marquee kept watch over downtown since 1932 — shut its doors. There has been no announcement of what it will be when they reopen.

Millburn’s movie theater closed down during the pandemic — and never returned, despite promises on the marquee. After years of nothingness, it finally has been renovated and turned into … a giant Charles Schwab office.

Meanwhile, in Maplewood, its theater — also a victim of COVID quarantines — remains an empty space. The next tenant is undetermined, although residents have recently offered suggestions online. (How about an indoor pickleball court?)

Most locals, however, seem to just want back what they had: a neighborhood movie house. Is that too much to hope for?

These days, it might be.

Both the Millburn and Ridgewood theaters had once been part of Bow Tie Cinemas; the oldest theater chain in the country, it has been shedding venues for years, from Tenafly to Manhattan, including New York’s late, lamented Ziegfeld. The business, recently rebranded as Scene One Entertainment, now describes itself as “a multifaceted entertainment company.” Its latest corporate investment is an old amusement park in upstate New York.

And it’s not just suburban New Jersey that is losing its movie theaters. A recent article on the industry site IndieWire noted that, of the three major national chains, only one, AMC, had opened a new theater in 2023; other companies continue to shut theirs down. Many metropolises — Milwaukee, New Haven, Detroit — no longer have theaters at all. (Some Motor City movie fans now drive to Canada.)

There are plenty of reasons for this, and perhaps plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start with us: Over the years, many people simply got out of the habit of going to the cinema. Some cited the expense (although the price of a movie ticket has gone up a lot less than the price of a Broadway play or rock concert). Some cited the bad behavior of the patrons around them, talking or playing with their phones. (No argument there). And others, frankly, would just as soon “Netflix and chill.”

It’s not as if the studios tried hard to give many of us a reason to get off the couch, either. Couples going out for a date night used to be able to choose between a comedy, a romance, a thriller and a serious drama. Now, unless it’s awards season, most of the time the local options seem to be either a superhero sequel or a horror film.

There is a cold and simple logic to that; until recently, comic-book movies were reliable billion-dollar moneymakers, and inexpensive shockers have always offered a great return on investment. Plus both appealed to younger audiences, who not only went to movies but went to see favorite ones multiple times. Still, the result for audiences who weren’t into Marvel or monsters was … well, daunting.

Of course, smaller crowds mean smaller profits, for everyone. With studios often taking roughly half the ticket price anyway, theater owners have regularly made most of their money someplace else, usually on concessions. (As an exhibitor once told me, “I’m not in the movie business. I’m in the popcorn-delivery business.”) But just as they’re getting fewer customers, their own costs — for everything from soda syrup to paper napkins — are going up. And there is only so much you can charge for a bucket of popcorn.

So those are the problems. What are the answers?

Innovation can play a big part. Some of that has to come from audiences, and studios, finally taking chances on different kinds of films (nothing about “Oppenheimer” or “Barbie” screamed blockbuster). But theaters can show some imagination, too. The Alamo Drafthouse chain and some AMC venues have had success offering in-theater food and beverage service, with expanded options that include alcohol and full meals. Although I’m not a fan of trying to watch, say, “The Zone of Interest” while someone next to me chows down on a cheeseburger, the theaters’ profit on a top-shelf margarita is probably healthier than the one on a Mountain Dew.

The Village at SOPAC in South Orange.

Other theaters are experimenting with programing. Headquartered in Montclair (and with actor and New Jersey resident Patrick Wilson onboard, as “Head of Experience”), Cinema Lab is a growing chain whose venues include The Village at SOPAC in South Orange. In addition to the usual studio releases, they regularly schedule special events including big-screen revivals of classics (“The Shining,” “The Wizard of Oz”) kiddie matinees (“The Iron Giant,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) and occasional surprises (local boy Zach Braff showed up last year to introduce his latest film, “A Good Person”).

And then there is another option: Leaving the for-profit world entirely. Montclair Film, which presents the Montclair Film Festival, took over that city’s Clairidge, a local fixture since 1922; it still shows studio and independent movies but also supports the organization’s outreach and educational services. Although anyone can walk up and buy a ticket, those who become members receive discounts as well as the knowledge that they are keeping the theater, and the organization, going.

The nonprofit model isn’t a simple fix for every struggling theater. The success stories usually begin with the mission to preserve a beloved theater, and to offer social benefits to the community — filmmaking classes for students, programming for underserved audiences. They grow only after tireless outreach — not just to involved neighborhood residents, but local businesses and educational institutions. And they continue to exist only with constant fundraising.

But they are worth it. And however we keep our local movie theaters going — whether through nonprofit status, or new ways of making a profit — they are worth it, too.

They are where we take our children to see their first films, and to celebrate their birthdays. Where they go on their first dates, or land their first jobs. Where we go for a night out, or a break from the holiday hustle, or just a chance to laze away a Sunday afternoon — while maybe grabbing dinner before, going out for coffee after, or just strolling around town and enjoying a sense of place, of belonging, of community.

And — sorry — that’s not something you get from a Charles Schwab office.

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