The Greatest Show in Town: The Showbox Theater Offers a Big-City Cinema Experience to the Local Community

Since he was a teenager, Shane Pollock knew he wanted to be an exhibitor. He finally fulfilled his long-standing ambition by acquiring his local cinema a few years after the Covid-19 pandemic. Following a complete renovation of the space, the Showbox Theater opened its doors in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, during the summer of 2023, Pollock having primed it to become a destination for movie lovers throughout the area. Boxoffice Pro spoke with Pollock about opening the movie theater he aspired to own and how the Showbox Theater offers a big-city cinema experience to the local community.

When did you know you wanted to be part of the exhibition business?

I’ve dreamt of owning a luxury cinema since I was 19. I imagined a new, two-story building with a childcare drop-off area; a four-star restaurant; and small, intimate auditoriums with high-end finishes. I entered the military at that age, and the on-post movie theater was run by individual units instead of a third-party organization or company. Each unit would send a representative to get trained on how to run the old reel-to-reel projectors, and I volunteered for it because I loved the movies. That was my first experience in theater operations, running those projectors. I remember playing movies like The Matrix and The Waterboy and thinking, “Boy, 35 millimeter sucks.” I had no idea that digital cinema was right around the corner.

I planted my roots in Kentucky once I got out of the Army, and even though my wife and I fell in love with the community and its people, our local movie theater was abysmal. The floors were sticky, the chairs hadn’t been replaced in who-knows-how-many decades, and it smelled of mildew. I was working as a contractor and would always advise the theater’s management on improving the theater. It wasn’t about pitching myself to work on the building—I just wanted to consult to make it a better place.

Did you take inspiration from other theaters when you considered entering the business?

I’ve been to movie theaters everywhere I’ve traveled—Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, and Europe—and seen all the different styles. Some of the best locations I saw were the ones in South Korea from CJ CGV, where tickets cost around $30. You get a beverage included in that ticket price and sit in a private lounge until the auditorium is ready. The seats are arranged in privacy pods that come with slippers, a pillow, and a blanket. The entire experience is designed to make you feel special. I wanted to bring that standard to the United States. Movie theaters in this country have to offer an experience beyond being a dark room where you can watch a movie.

How did you come to purchase the theater?

Their management reached out in October 2022 to let me know they were listening to offers. I came in, negotiated an offer, and bought the building and the business. It was a quick turnaround from making the initial offer to us owning it. When we walked in the door, we were completely clueless about basic things—the last time I touched a movie, they ran on reel-to-reel projectors.

Only after buying the theater did I realize it needed about $3 million in work. The last renovation was in 1983; it went from a twin to a five-screen cinema. Carmike glassed-in the front of the building, putting in an atrium where people outside would queue before walking into the building. That was probably the worst design in the history of movie theaters—it would magnify the sun in the summer and make the lobby freezing cold in the winter. We’re talking about $6,000 a month in electric bills for a building that’s 20,000 square feet. After owning the theater for about two months, we realized all of the digital cinema equipment previously installed had to go. We brought in new technology as if we were starting over from scratch.

That’s not an easy challenge to undertake. How did you know which type of improvements and amenities would work for your community?

Our market is very diverse. Within 10 miles, the average household income goes from $120,000 a year to $36,000 a year. We have a couple of other independent theaters around us that aren’t within a competitive radius, but they offer a different concept at a lower ticket price. When we were doing the initial market planning for the theater, we knew we wanted it to be a luxury facility, knowing that we would only survive if we could become a destination location. We can’t survive just with the audience within an immediate radius; we need people to travel 30 miles or more to come here because this is not just a movie theater—it’s an experience. We want our customers to feel individually catered to. We offer a big-city experience in a small market. When you look at our pricing, whether [for] tickets or concessions, we are more affordable than the big-box theaters in our area because our overhead is dramatically lower, with five screens and 20,000 square feet.

We looked at amenities that would help drive revenue. We knew we could make only so much money from ticket and popcorn sales alone. Right off the bat, we set out to find a way to have a full bar and modified kitchen installed in our footprint of 20,000 square feet. Remember—this space was originally laid out for a two-screen movie theater. Our challenge was installing a functional kitchen area that could provide a full menu for our customers, and we managed to do it without having to buy any heavy-duty kitchen equipment.

We have special dinner-theater screenings in one of our auditoriums, and we got the sort of menu we wanted by partnering with restaurants in our community. We call one of our local restaurant partners a couple of hours before our dinner-theater showtime, and they’ll box up the food we need. We do all the assembling, heating, and plating in our facility. It’s not your traditional dine-in [theater], where you order through a QR code and pray the food is warm whenever it appears. Partnering with local restaurants allows us to rotate the menu every quarter, ensuring we always have a new dining experience for our guests. Our dinner-theater screenings are a monthly date night for our audience.

You also decided to go with themed auditoriums, in which each screen has its own distinct vibe.

That’s right. It’s not just numbered auditoriums; each has a different aesthetic design. Our Stardust auditorium has a 1950s Las Vegas vibe and hosts our dinner theater. We’ve installed privacy-pod seating separated by dividers between each part of Irwin Zero-G loveseat recliners. Our second screen is the Prague, where we program all the scary movies and thrillers. We decorated it with stag heads and creepy chandeliers and covered our soundboards in python skins. Then we have the Atlantis, which has an aquatic theme. And we also have what you could call our “premium” auditorium—even though we don’t charge a higher price for it—which we call the Metro. It is equipped with Dolby Atmos immersive sound and has a steampunk feel.

One thing is putting in the work and effort to upgrade the theater, and the other is marketing it to your local community—especially if your audience has never been to a luxury cinema. How did you sell this new experience to an audience that might not have a point of reference?

The immediate community around our theater is better acquainted with a five-dollar discount theater model. Marketing a different experience at a higher price point was a big challenge. There are some people in our community whom we will never appeal to, and we recognize that—you can’t please everybody.

As we began outfitting our theater, we were conscious that we needed to be realistic about how we would pay our monthly bills. We want longevity in this community instead of being a flash in the pan. The easiest way for us to determine that was by looking at what our seat occupancy numbers needed to be. If we can expect 23 percent seat occupancy, what do we need to charge to make that 23 percent cover all of our overhead? And what does our cost need to be to give us a healthy return and allow us to continue improving the theater into the future? Finally, what is the cost to expand beyond one location and reach other markets? Those are the questions that drove our price point and some of the reasons we decreased our occupancy when we switched over to recliners—it’s all about optimizing the price point on every seat you’re offering.

We knew we had to distinguish ourselves from the discount theaters in our area as soon as our customers walked through the door. Walking into our theater, you see a gold epoxy floor, crystal chandeliers hanging from coffered ceilings, and a 42-foot-long waterfall-edge quartz countertop for the concessions stand. We want to ensure that our customers immediately know exactly why our tickets cost more. We didn’t want a cookie-cutter design; we wanted to deliver the type of movie theater you’ve never seen before. Once you’re in that setting, paying five dollars for a candy bar is a little more palatable than sneaking one in, in your back pocket.

We also instituted some policies to make sure we could enforce our standards. We want our theater to be a place where people can truly enjoy cinema, not somewhere you have to deal with a bunch of kids running around and jumping over seats. That is what this place used to be. That’s why we enacted a policy that doesn’t allow children under 16 without a parent after 5 p.m. Parents used to pull up to the theater, and 10 kids would jump out of the car like a bunch of clowns arriving at a circus. At that point, you’re a babysitter, not a movie theater.

You are one of the few brave souls who opened a movie theater after the pandemic. Did you ever waver in your confidence in the industry’s long-term viability?

My biggest concern coming into it was the impact streaming would have on the business. Then I looked deeper into whether any of these streaming services were profitable. Are they going to be long-term obstacles for theatrical [exhibition]? The more and more I looked at it, the more I realized everyone’s hemorrhaging money on these streaming services. There’s no way these streamers can sustain themselves without embracing theatrical down the line. I’m gambling on the belief that we will eventually see many more of these streamers take their movies to theaters in the coming years; I just can’t see how they can stay in business by keeping it in-house all the time. We’ve seen that bet pay off since we opened. A couple of months into owning the theater, our first movie from Apple came in. We’ve been getting more and more movies from streamers since we opened—many times at a better percentage than the studios are offering us. Hopefully, these streamers will keep studios in check when splitting the box office. I expect streamers to make up for the decreased output we’ve been seeing from studios.

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