Luxury theater chain Emagine Entertainment is feeling the spirit of the season at their Birmingham 8 location, turning the historic theater into a full haunted house experience during the month of October. In this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, Emagine CEO Anthony LaVerde discusses the ins and outs of this ambitious, and innovative, way to attract customers during a quiet period on the release calendar.
Can you give us some background on how this haunted theater concept came to be?
We’re lucky enough to have two locations in Birmingham, Michigan. We have our traditional Emagine-style luxury theater, [and] during Covid we acquired this special 100-year-old theater. It has such a rich history. During these slow months that we’ve been dealing with since August, we were looking for another way to use this historic venue. It’s always been rumored to be haunted. We have employees who refuse to go to certain sections of the building. We actually have an electrician who refuses to come back in the building. He was in the basement doing some work, and he heard bowling balls. We had to tell him that, when the theater was originally built, there was a bowling alley in the basement. So now he refuses to come back. With all the history and the lore, for years it’s been rumored to be haunted. I approached a local event company, Bluewater, […] about partnering with us to develop this haunted theater concept. They jumped all over it and we began construction.
How long did it take to put the whole thing together?
We closed for 15 days in September to commence construction, and we opened October 1st. It really is transformed. There are walls moved, there are seats taken out. It was truly a massive undertaking to meet the deadline.
What’s been the community response to the theater’s new vibe?
The opening night with local press was sold out. It was truly an amazing evening. Instead of cutting a red ribbon, we had James Jude Courtney, who’s the real Michael Myers in the last three Halloween films, cut a red rope that was filled with artificial blood. As he said, he “slashed the ribbon.” Then James was kind enough to host a Q&A panel, which ended up selling three different shows out. Folks were just so enamored by him, and he spent time with everyone. It was a really special evening.
As a luxury chain, elevated F&B is a substantial part of Emagine’s brand. Did you develop any new concepts for the haunted theater?
Absolutely. We partnered with Blake Farms, which is a well respected local–now national–chain [that sells] hard cider and donuts. We’ll be doing hot chocolate, cider donuts, [and] pizza outside. Inside, we’ll be doing adult beverages, [like] spiked apple cider. We really have elevated the experience to coincide with the fall season.
How did you handle staffing the theater during October? Did Bluewater bring people in? For an Emagine employee, working a theater is going to be very different from working a haunted house.
The operations of the technology involved in the haunted house–there really is a control room that I am beyond impressed [with]. It has two massive soundboards. There’s servers. We’ve really brought in technology to the experience. Bluewater is handling all of that and doing a wonderful job. They have a partner that has hired all of the jump actors and the scare actors. We also have some theatrical elements, so there are some actors that actually have roles within the haunted house. Bluewater has been responsible for those elements. Operationally–food and beverage, line design, flow through the haunted house–has been our team. It’s a true 50/50 partnership. So far it’s worked very well. When you can meet deadlines, that’s always a positive thing. That means your teams are working well together.
We sent an email out for any [Emagine] employees that wanted to pick up additional shifts at this theater, because it does require more staff than the typical theater would utilize. The influx of emails was there. Everyone wanted to help out at the haunted house. We even had three or four employees that asked about working with the talent group, who provided the actors and the jump scares. We have three employees that had their makeup done, and they’ve been working for the talent crew and doing jump scares. They’re all into it.
What would be your advice for any theater operator that may be interested in doing something similar with an old theater?
I probably would have closed another week earlier in September. It really is a pretty big lift to do it right. And we like to do everything right at Emagine. For the last three nights, before we opened, we had staff sleeping there to get it completely ready. So I think I would have just closed a week earlier and have some of the learning curves of the first few days hashed out before opening. But it is certainly a much bigger lift than most folks will anticipate–to do it right.