Movie Business

Movie Business

During COVID, the big screen took a famously big hit. More than 2,000 theaters across the United States closed, according to an industry survey. People were no longer willing to sit in a big, dark room near a stranger who might be infected, especially with endless online streaming options at home.

What was an independent theater proprietor to do? At first, Arnold Gorlick, owner of Madison Art Cinemas, dug in, renovating his two-screen theater with the help of a $433,000 federal COVID loan. But then, while the updates were in progress, the 75-year-old decided to retire. He sold the theater to Harold Blank and William Dougherty, who already owned Mystic Luxury Cinemas up the coast. They continued Gorlick’s updates and added some of their own, changing everything from the screens to what’s on them. They even changed the name, dropping the “Art” to support their shift away from arthouse films toward more commercial—but not artless—fare.

Dougherty summarizes the new offerings of the new Madison Cinemas as “smart movies,” encompassing flicks like the now-playing Barbie and Golda, and he says this change was the most essential of all the updates the new owners have made. “It was important that we change the film policy,” he says. “It was our first priority. An art house draws a limited audience, and we needed to diversify, to attract families with blockbusters and films that children could enjoy along with their parents.” In a move that may assuage some of the sting for arthouse lovers, the new owners have scheduled what they’re calling “special events,” including screenings of concert films, live theater recordings and classic movies.

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Other changes include increasing the space between aisles from 36 to 44 inches, giving patrons more legroom and reducing the capacity of the two theater spaces from 220 seats to about 150 each. The seats themselves are wider and softer, with a slight recline so the viewer can literally sit back and enjoy the show, though Dougherty says the improvements are nonetheless a compromise. “We wanted to install bigger seats with electric power to allow a deeper recline, but we couldn’t do it because the building is 100 years old, and it just couldn’t accommodate .”

Compromise or not, the seats they did install make it easier to feel like you’re on your couch, while the screens are large enough to provide a sense of spectacle you can’t get from your couch. “I like it because it’s cozy,” one patron said. “Only two movies at a time means smaller crowds, not like those eight- and 12-screen monsters where there are mobs of people.”

Additional renovations include the installation of state-of-the art digital projection equipment and a high-tech ventilation and climate control system that, Blank says, also functions as a disinfectant. The sound system, I’m told, features the latest technology, though it was hard to appreciate that at a recent showing of Golda, where the sound was far too loud for me.

The modestly sized lobby has also been upgraded, now sporting the infrastructure to pump out chicken tenders, fries, mozzarella sticks and presumably personal-sized pizzas. There’s now a liquor license, too, allowing the theater to serve beer, wine and mixed drinks. In the tradition of cinemas everywhere, the concessions tend to be a bit pricey, with five chicken tenders costing $13 ($15.50 with fries) and a seven-ounce glass of wine, admittedly larger than standard, selling for between $10.50 and $13.50. Once you’ve picked up your food and drink, you can take a seat, either in the theater where your movie is showing or a small communal lounge area with cafe tables and a wraparound banquette.

Dougherty says the new wraparound business approach at Madison Cinemas embodies “a necessary change for the whole industry… We have to provide the audience with a total experience. It’s the extension of your day. You can come to a theater, have a glass of wine, relax and enjoy a great movie. What we’re selling is an evening out.”

Dinner and a movie is still a thing, if you want it—only now, even at a two-screen theater in a quiet shoreline town of 18,000, you can do both in one place.

Madison Cinemas
761 Boston Post Rd, Madison (map)
(203) 245-3456

Written and photographed by Jim Murphy.

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