Shuttered NJ Movie Theaters Are Reopening as Indie, Arthouse Cinemas

While big chains may not find it worthwhile to keep struggling cinemas open given their huge overhead costs, smaller groups are stepping in to save theaters.

L-R: Cinema Lab Chief Marketing Officer Brandon Jones, Chief Experience Officer Patrick Wilson, Chief Executive Officer Luke Parker Bowles, and Chief Financial Officer Andy Childs
L-R: Cinema Lab Chief Marketing Officer Brandon Jones, Chief Experience Officer Patrick Wilson, Chief Executive Officer Luke Parker Bowles, and Chief Financial Officer Andrew Childs attend the premiere of Wilson's movie "Moonfall" in South Orange. Photo courtesy of Mike Mullan

In March of 1927, the Maplewood Theater opened to much fanfare with a screening of heartthrob Rudolph Valentino’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Over the next near-century of moviegoing, the iconic theater survived the advent of multiplexes and online streaming services. But one thing it couldn’t survive was the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It was a sign of the times: When the pandemic struck in March 2020, movie theaters, along with other nonessential businesses, were ordered to close statewide. When they were allowed to reopen that September, many patrons no longer felt comfortable at the movies, and the lack of business forced many New Jersey theaters to shut down. Movie houses, once the cornerstone of main streets, became vacant as film lovers turned to streaming from the comfort of their living rooms.

Now, in a surprising turnaround, movie theaters are starting to make a comeback. Many of the once-empty playhouses, including the Maplewood Theater (previously owned by Bow Tie Cinemas, a large movie theater chain) are now reopening as independent, arthouse movie theaters showing curated films that cater to their communities. 

The reason? While big chains may not find it worthwhile to keep struggling cinemas open given their huge overhead costs, smaller, scrappier organizations don’t have the same challenges—and now they are stepping in to save theaters from shutting their doors forever. 

During the first year of the pandemic, nearly half of the state’s 92 movie theaters (with 794 screens) temporarily closed due to the pandemic, says Robert Piechotta, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Association of Theater Owners—and the owner of theaters in Montgomery Township and Hillsborough. Eighteen of those theaters never reopened and may be shuttered for good. Three theater chains—AMC, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres—owned half of all New Jersey theaters. 

A rendering of the Bradley movie theater

Cinema Lab hopes to reopen the Bradley Beach movie theater, calling it the Bradley, by Memorial Day. Rendering courtesy of Cinema Lab

In March 2020, the Bow Tie Cinemas Clairidge Theater in Montclair closed as a result of the pandemic. The historic movie house had opened in 1922 as a deluxe movie palace, and audiences had flocked there from all over the area to experience an exceptional moviegoing experience. In the 1960s, it had become a Cinerama house, once considered a breakthrough in movie technology. 

When it closed, the artsy town was left without any movie theaters, since the Bellevue Theater had also previously closed. (The owners of that theater are hoping to reopen it this year.)

“When we watched theaters shut down in our hometown, we knew that we wanted to do everything we could to keep them going,” says actor and producer Patrick Wilson, who has lived in Montclair with his wife, Succession star Dagmara Dominczyk, since 2011. 

In February 2021, the Conjuring  star teamed up with producer Luke Parker Bowles and three others to create Cinema Lab, a movie-theater development and management company based in Montclair that’s committed to helping independent theaters succeed. 

“The big-box companies don’t have the passion for smaller houses like we do. And we wanted to create programming that also showcases the social and environmental causes that are important to us,” says Wilson. 

Patrick Wilson and Dagmara Dominczyk

Actor and Cinema Lab cofounder Patrick Wilson and his wife, “Succession” star Dagmara Dominczyk, have lived in Montclair since 2011. Here, they are seen at the 2022 “Moonfall” premiere in South Orange. Photo courtesy of Mike Mullan

In February, Wilson had what may be a first for New Jersey movies, when Cinema Lab held a glitzy premiere for his new blockbuster film, Moonfall, at one of his company’s new venues—the Village Theater at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. Not long after the premiere, director Ruben Fleischer, who lives in New Jersey, hosted a private screening of his new movie Uncharted at the Village Theater, and star Tom Holland made a surprise appearance

The Village Theater had also been owned by Bow Tie Cinemas, a chain with 38 movie theaters around the country. Cinema Lab reopened it last summer. 

Across the United States, nearly a quarter of all movie theaters have stayed closed since they shut down in March 2020, with a combined yearly box office loss of $1.8 billion, according to Gower Street Analytics, a global film-tech company. 

That’s starting to change. In 2020, ShowRoom Cinemas closed its Asbury Park and Bradley Beach theaters due to the pandemic. But in August 2021, Manasquan resident Daria Parr bought the Asbury Park cinema and plans to keep it as an arthouse movie theater. 

Cinema Lab plans to open 15 venues across the United States in the next five years, including the Maplewood Theater and the Bradley Beach movie theater, which it will call the Bradley. It will offer beer, wine, coffee and gourmet snacks.

When the Bradley Beach theater closed in 2020, it was a huge loss to its beach community. The building stands prominently on the town’s Main Street, known for its thriving restaurant scene. 

“It was tough when they closed, a real gut punch. We were in the middle of Covid, and it was a real economic hit to the town,” says Bradley Beach Mayor Larry Fox. Now,  the community is hopeful. 

Cinema Lab is also developing partnerships with nearby eateries, including Vic’s Italian Restaurant next door.

“The community is 200 percent behind this; they want it to be successful,” says Fox. “When the theater gets revived, everybody wins. It’s going to have a domino effect; people will show up in town for the movies and come to our restaurants. ”

When Cinema Lab decided to reopen the theater in Bradley Beach, it created a Kickstarter campaign in the community. Its goal was to raise $50,000. The concept was so popular that, in a week, they were able to raise $65,000. The theater is undergoing renovations, and the company hopes to open it by Memorial Day 2022.

Cinema Lab got its start when the group tried to reopen the Bellevue Theater in Montclair in 2021. When that fell through, they pivoted to something different, says Andrew Childs, chief financial officer of the company. 

“Out of that dark spot came the realization that cinema and the arts were so important to main streets across the country,” he says. “We’re avid lovers of cinema and arts in our community. This is a passion project —we believe that we have to bring cinema back.”

Cinema Lab will finance its ventures through private investors, says Parker Bowles, chief executive officer of Cinema Lab (and a nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall). The company will take over operations of the theaters it is reopening. 

Cinema Lab plans to reopen Maplewood’s theater later in 2023 and call it the Maplewood. It already has a cinema operating in Cañon City, Colorado. 

Parker Bowles declined to comment on the cost to reopen the venues. 

Brandon Jones, chief marketing officer of the company, says one reason Cinema Lab is so well suited for this business is that it can react faster to changing conditions than large multiplex companies.  

“When you go to the cinema, you buy into the experience. You get to escape. It’s a completely different experience from watching at home,” he says. 

Parker Bowles agrees: “That live element of getting together has always been crucial.” He adds, “We’re all fathers, and we love that experience of going to see a movie with your kids.” 

When the Clairidge Theater in Montclair shut down in 2020, Montclair Film took over the lease. The nonprofit used the cinema every year to screen movies for its annual film festival. Montclair Film quickly renovated the somewhat rundown theater over the summer to get it ready for its festival in October. Now, the facility is shiny and clean, with new lighting, carpeting and gourmet treats. This year’s film festival will take place there and in other locations. 

The Clairidge is a member-driven, nonprofit cinema with six screens showing independent and international films, as well as documentaries, year-round. On a recent evening earlier this year, it screened Oscar-nominated  independent films Drive My Car, Belfast, and Licorice Pizza—movies not found at most multiplexes in New Jersey. 

The audiences were still sparse, but Montclair Film executive director Tom Hall says people want to see things on the big screen now, as it’s a more meaningful and immersive experience.

The business is at 40 percent of what it was in 2019. But since it’s a nonprofit, it doesn’t have shareholders to answer to. 

“We’re hopeful to get people comfortable with getting back to the cinema soon,” he says. “We want them to know that we’re here and we’re back.”

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