This Week on the Boxoffice Podcast: Can Community Cinemas Bounce Back from the Pandemic?

Courtesy Cinema Lab

This week, Daniel and Rebecca talk to guests Brandon Jones and Luke Parker Bowles about their efforts to revive The Bradley Cinema through their ownership group, Cinema Lab. Originally a single-screen theater in Bradley Beach, New Jersey dating back to the earliest days of commercial exhibition, The Bradley is being converted to a three-screen cinema with a live performance space slated to re-open in Summer 2021. Brandon and Luke discuss The Bradley’s history, its recent transformation, and the important role independent cinemas play in their communities. 

Here on the Boxoffice Podcast, we love all theaters—but we have a particular fondness for the older ones that have been around in many cases through the bulk of exhibition history in America. What’s the history of the Bradley Theatre?

Brandon Jones: Well, we actually found this project from Michael and Nancy, who were the current owners of the Bradley. The theater itself, at the beginning of the pandemic, came to us through a couple of different people saying that they were looking to possibly sell it. And one of Luke’s friends and former colleagues, Arianna Bocco, who’s the president of IFC Films, called us because she wanted to see something unique happen with it. 

The legacy of the theater dates back over 100 years. It started out as a vaudeville theater and then started screening films I believe in the 1930s. It’s been a centerpiece to the Bradley Beach community since its inception. It has a legacy. Even Jack Nicholson was an usher there at one time. There’s a lot of history there. It has been a one, single-screen theater, and we look to bring it up to date and make it a three screen theater.

Luke Parker Bowles: We went on a day trip to see it, because Arianna had reached out. I think it was Brandon, myself, and colleagues. Within a second we knew that this was something that had to be restored. It is metaphorically and geographically the beating heart of Bradley Beach. Asbury Park’s theater had sadly closed down, and the nearest movie theater to the Bradley is a 27-minute drive. It seemed like it was incumbent upon us, if nothing else, to make sure that this theater continued to live on.

Coming in to take over this theater, it’s not like you just decided one morning, “Hey, let’s do this. Let’s put a Kickstarter campaign on.” You went about things a more formal way with your entity Cinema Lab. Could you tell us how that entity came to be, what the ambition is behind it, and your plans moving forward under that title?

LPB: I am based in Montclair. And there’s the Bellevue Theatre here, which we’ve been working on trying to bring back to life. Through that process and through one of our colleagues, Patrick Wilson—the actor and demigod—we were introduced to Brandon Jones. We loved working on the Bellevue. And we suddenly thought to ourselves, “Well, listen, this is much more fun than we thought it would be.” And we are all big, big cinephiles. We did this pre-pandemic. But it became very clear during the pandemic, and looking to the back of the pandemic, that while the big box theaters are going to continue to exist, of course, there is going to be this trepidation about jumping back into them and that cinema-viewing will become a more localized and more intimate experience as people test the waters. 

After the Bellevue, the Bradley quickly came up. And we were like, “Wow, there are so many of these little theaters.” And not just for a land grab. We’re not doing this for a land grab in the slightest. We’re doing this because [these are] amazing buildings with so much history that have served communities. We get emails and calls from so many theaters. I think we’ve probably been being approached by more than 30 movie theaters across America—small ones—saying, “Our town is falling apart. Our center is gone.” It seemed very clear to us that this wasn’t just a one-off. If community and keeping people safe was going to be the way into getting audiences back into movie theaters, we wanted to be part of that solution.

It calls to mind New Vision, which was made up of those smaller, community theaters and some of the Carmike locations that didn’t end up with AMC. So many of these small theaters have had to shut down. What’s the financial viability behind this model moving forward? For this type of cinema, the margins often aren’t all that great, even before the pandemic.

BJ: I think there’s truly a space here. What makes our group unique is there’s six of us involved—including Luke, myself, Patrick Arianna Bocco, Vincent Onorati, and Andy Childs—who all bring a different perspective on the cinema experience. We get messy and put all that on the table. We talk about being-technology first. Do you do food and beverage or not? Do you deliver it to your seat or not? All of these components are out there. What’s interesting now is that everything’s new again, and you can really pick and choose the model that you want that fits. We don’t have to have this legacy system that we start have to molding things into. We don’t have a building that we’ve been in for 10 years and all sudden, “Oh, we want to do dine-in.” We have the ability now to craft and create the experience that that we think will fit that building and that community the best. And we don’t plan on just being cookie cookie cutter across each location. 

We’re going to be very, very selective. We want to get the Bradley off the ground first and foremost. Work on our skills at being quality exhibitors and good neighbors and working within the community. And then we have some other opportunities that are are coming to us quickly. We think the real estate’s important. We think offering food and beverage of some kind, whether that’s elevated concessions or possibly grab-and-go or dine-in, [is as well]. Certainly I think alcohol is a big part of this. Being able to enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine—the margins are good. So we want to make sure that we offer that. 

The other part of this that I think is really important is programming. The distribution model has changed. It’s not going back. We’re not putting the toothpaste back in the tube. It will look different six months from now, a year from now, than it does today. Being able to program more consistently and not relying strictly on the peaks and lulls of major studio films—having uncommon alternate programming to serve the audience to bring people in seven days a week, for 12 months out of the year—is really important to us.

LPB: Patrick’s background, obviously, as well as being an actor—he’s also a very, very fine Broadway actor and also is in a band. He was very keen that there should be some live element to these theaters. So each of the theaters that we’ve looked at either have proscenium stages or the ability to adapt them to proscenium stages. So we can have stand-up. We can have a a TED talk in there. We can have a community event. In Bradley Beach, there are a lot of Gold Star families. We would love to do events especially for them. I think it’s looking at this in a different way. And it goes back to that notion of, post-pandemic, everyone wanting to be around people, not necessarily that they know, but to feel psychosomatically a little safer. And I think if you can bring in that community aspect, it doesn’t feel like you’re in the dark, in a mall, X Brand’s cinema. Just having that somewhat generic experience.

Your Kickstarter campaign has been successful—you had an initial goal of $50,000, which you have passed. What are some of the insights you learned from going the crowdfunding route?

LPB: There was initially a sort of—I think not a cynicism, but a confusion by people that, well, you’ve got your money. Why do you need to raise money from the community? And it was our way of wanting to make sure that the community had the ability to be part of it. It was flipping it the other way. We would have had the money anyway to get this going. But our way was to show Bradley Beach that we were there and they get to be involved—that they could have their name on a seat, and that we weren’t some evil empire who was coming in to take over. I think that’s really worked. Whether we do crowdfunding in the future for other theaters, I think it depends on the area. But I certainly think, for Bradley Bradley, it behooved us, because it is such a community space. So that was the reason for it. It wasn’t necessarily to get the money. It was to it was to allow everyone to be a part of this. 

BJ: It’s  really offered us an insight. As we start talking to the audience within that community, we’re already getting feedback. On programming, and “Have you looked at this aspect? Have you talked about this? Have you looked at the bathrooms?” It’s all over the board. You start to peel back, because we weren’t in this theater for the last couple years or even the last decade. The audience is starting to give us so much institutional capital about the community and what’s important to them, just through that feedback. I’m sure we could flip open a Facebook page or Instagram and get that kind of feedback. But when you look at it from the crowdfunding aspect, you’re getting this feedback from people who are now invested in you. And you’ve got to be a really good steward of that information. Because, yes, it’s important to put their name on the wall or on the back of a seat. But they’ve also entrusted you to do something with with their money, whether it’s $20 or $5,000.

LPB: One of the other important things—something that is very much in our mandate—is to make sure that in every case, with every theater, there is a local that we know and can be a bastion for the theater. At Bradley Beach, we have Arianna Bracco, who’s there and who is part of our team and will be there and available—not every day. But there will be, for lack of a better term, boots on the ground. There are three or four that we would imagine we will be opening by the end of the year or early next year. And it’s the same case. In our reaching out to the community, by and large you’ll find somebody who is in the film industry or who we’ve connected with who we can be checking in with every day and see how everything’s going. So that there is a consistency of branding and experience. If one of them’s funky, it’s like a virus. It kills the whole thing. We are very aware of making sure that we are transparent, accessible, and that we do a good job.

BJ: You know what else is great? It has also shown the passion of people who want to go to the movies. This is not, “Hey, I’m satisfied with streaming platforms.” It’s “I want to get back to going to the movies. I can’t wait to go to the movies again.” That’s what I would share with all exhibitors out there. I know that this has been tough. This has been beyond difficult for our industry. We live and breathe this every day. But as we’re talking to moviegoers and people who are thinking, “Oh, no, I don’t have a theater to go to anymore.” They are reaching out. Just—”Can you hold on? Can you make it? We will be there to support you.” The the moviegoing audience may have truncated slightly. It’s our job as exhibitors to win them back, and win them back because we have a better experience for consuming movies.

LPB: You’ve talked about it a fair bit on [the podcast]: the HBO deal and how that can affect the industry. The fact is that there is nothing quite like the pomp and circumstance, the experience of going to a movie theater where somebody is presenting something to you. You’ve chosen the movie you’re going to watch. But you’re going into their house, and you’re going to experience it their way. Or I can sit in my basement and I can just choose whatever I want to choose. Inevitably, the process of choosing whatever I want to choose means that in the end, I end up choosing the lowest common denominator.

There really is something about [moviegoing] that I think is never going to go away. That’s what really gets us excited. It’s the same with theater, going to Broadway. It’s the same with just going to somebody else’s house. We’ve become too spoiled in having everything the way we want it, when we want it, how we want it. That’s our generation. But to actually go and be presented with something, that’s what we’re missing the most. And that’s why we’re on hand, as Brandon said, for the smaller theaters to do what we can to allow that experience to happen.

We’ve spoken a lot on this podcast about the communal aspect of going to the movies, but I think another key element, too—and it’s something you touched on—is the spontaneity of it. When you go to a movie, you don’t know what the audience will be like. Will they be vocal or not? Maybe you’ve chosen a movie you don’t know much about, but you trust the programmers. There’s something to putting things into someone else’s hands and being surprised by the experience you get. 

BJ: I feel like A Quiet Place was the most interactive movie, because everybody had to participate in actually being quiet. You couldn’t move the straw in your glass. A server couldn’t come in at a dine-in and take an order because all of a sudden, we’re all hunted down. That movie theater cannot become the target. It just came to life that way. There’s a communal experience inside the theater, but also there’s a community that surrounds the theater itself, the actual location. Bringing people together—gosh, if we ever needed to come together, now’s the time more than ever where you don’t need to sit and ask people their views on certain issues or whatever their lifestyle is. You can really just come and enjoy going to the movies. And that’s the way it’s always been.

LPB: Raw emotions that aren’t divisive. That pure experience that you get in a theater. This is a real segue—I went to the premiere of United 93. And in the audience—this is pretty heavy one—they’d invited the families of the victims. And it’s the one of the most vivid, painful—I mean, not painful for me, bloody hell, it’s painful for them. But at the end of the film, we just sat in the dark with these families just wailing. This guttural experience. There is something that goes on in the dark. I have permission to have a cry if I’m moved by something. And I’m not worried about everyone. That inner sanctum. That safe place.

BJ: The vulnerability that you get when you’re allowed to just express your emotions in a movie, and nobody else is judging you for that. I love that thought. Here’s my question: How many of you, in the last year, after you’ve watched a movie streaming, have stayed and clapped? So many times after you watch a movie in a theater, the audience just—not just festivals or premieres! I remember several movies where the audience literally clapped after the movie. It stays interactive until the end. There’s this surprise if you get credit scenes and things like that.

Brandon, we know you not only through your work at Cinema Lab, but also through your role at FilmFrog Marketing. You have been working in the marketing space and exhibition for a number of years. For our marketing colleagues listening to this episode working in exhibition right now, for them to start rethinking their approach: In your perspective, what are the biggest challenges facing cinema marketers at the other side of this pandemic?

BJ: Let me just throw it out there. I feel exhibitors have gotten lazy in marketing their theaters. Because we became amplifiers to the studios. And I give the studios all the credit in the world for being the best content creators and making it really easy. There’s this idea that we were just selling the movie. But everybody in the space was selling the movie. So as an exhibitor, I really think we’ve got to get back to sharing what’s special about the movie theater experience. Each exhibitor has a story to tell. What I love about small to mid-size exhibitors is that these are family-owned businesses. There’s legacy in these businesses. We’ve got to get back to not just selling a seat and saying it’s a better seat. Because now, that’s table stakes. Everybody knows the movie is playing. 

We’ve got to really tell the story about why that business is important. Why that that experience is better. We don’t talk about “no distractions” enough. We don’t talk about the immersive sound and picture enough. But we also don’t talk about how that particular theater is giving back to the community in a very specific way. Paul Gunsky at CineLux, they’re big providers of Second Harvest in Northern California. Share that story. Studio Movie Grill. I was there for more than seven years. They’re really big on giving back and “Opening Hearts and Minds,” from prom dresses to giving “Movies and Meals” through their loyalty program. Cinergy Entertainment out in West Texas, doing everything they can for first responders and teachers. That became really important to them. Maya Cinemas, going back and really developing [theaters] in underserved communities. Who else is building a 16-screen theater in some of these communities like Maya Cinemas is? We’ve got to share these stories as exhibitors about why it’s so important. The movie is important. It’s the driver. But the experience of going to the movie at that particular theater is important. Share your story. And also talk about the business that you’re running. Those are the type of things that I think really galvanize us together.

What still remains to be done for the Bradley in terms of renovation and construction, and what’s your timeline for reopening?

LPB: One of the great notches on our belt is partly Andy Childs, who was one of the people who started Soho House. It’s a private media club. His wife, Kristen, was actually the interior designer for the East Coast Soho Houses. There’s Toronto, there’s Soho House New York, Soho House Miami Beach. She has an incredible ethic and taste. We are going to spend several months—not that we don’t love how it looks now—but there is a look and feel that we ascribe to. We plan to close this deal ideally next week, maybe in the next couple of weeks. Everything is signed. It’s now just lawyerage. We want to be up and running in time for the big films—and the smaller films—in the summer. We will have months of—first of all turning the Bradley from one theater into three theaters. We’re putting in a lounge. Putting in new concessions. We’re giving it our look and feel. A new marquee. There’s a lot to do, but it’s really exciting. 

This is the great thing about smaller theaters. You really can take the time. You really can think through the experience to much more of an extent. Big box theaters do what they do. But the logistics of not only thinking about the look and feel but also the organization of the staff and picking up the food. How does the food gets served? All of that complexity. Do I want somebody coming in and bringing me my food in the dark, coming out of Covid? I don’t know. Maybe I just want to keep it simple for now. Maybe we just have elevated concessions, and we have alcohol, and I’ve picked it up and taken it to my seat. I do think that we are on the cusp. We do feel that this is the right time to reimagine, from a community standpoint, the theater experience.

So the short version is we’ll be opening in the summer.

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