April 30, 2018
Focus on Small Business

Strand, Elm theaters buck against industry trends

Photo | Matt Wright
The Strand Theatre, on High Street in Clinton

When the Strand Theatre in Clinton was rehabilitated in the mid-1990s after a long period of sitting vacant, Rob Nierintz and friends made it a tradition to see a movie each Sunday night, sitting in the same seats.

"Half the time, we didn't even know what was playing," Nierintz said.

The movie buff, who worked in client services for Fidelity Investments in Marlborough at the time, never saw himself as the theater's future owner. But for the past six years, he has been. Nierintz and business partner Bill Grady bought the theater in 2012.

And he still gets to sit down for a movie each Sunday night. Except he first needs to make sure the kitchen sends food out in time and the bar isn't backed up on drink orders, and he'll often miss the previews, the opening credits and maybe the first half-hour of the movie.

It was a similar story for Jim Perry. The Millbury native started regularly catching movies at the Elm Draught House Cinema in the center of town while in high school, and then bought the theater in 2000.

"I don't know if it's a passion or a torture," Perry joked of running the theater, which he does with the help of only five part-timers. "You have to have a passion for it because it is a lot of work."

The bright lights

The Strand and the Elm keep prices low and capitalize on the loyalty of theater-goers who put a premium on the old-fashion experience of seeing a movie. The theaters are holding their own at a time when trends would show it to be harder than ever.

Movie ticket sales in 2017, at more than 1.2 billion admissions in the United States and Canada, was the lowest since 1995 and a drop of 21 percent from a 2003 high, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Photo | Matt Wright
Strand Theatre co-owner Rob Nierintz was a longtime regular at the theater before buying it with a partner in 2012.

Yet at the same time, there are more theater screens than practically ever: more than 40,000 as of the end of 2017, a 13-percent increase since the height of theater admissions in 2003.

Movie fans have more options to watch at home, with streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

But Nierintz says the Strand has something streaming movies at home can't compete against: a night out of the house, the experience of watching a film in a nearly century-old theater, and the old-fashioned feeling of walking in under the bright marquee on downtown Clinton's High Street.

"There's something very special and nostalgic about it being on this street," Nierintz said of the location among a cluster of restaurants and small shops.

There is another trend may be working in favor of independent theaters showing so-called second-run movies. The number of average days a movie is shown in theaters has fallen from 135 days in 2005 to just 98 days in 2017, according to the data research firm Kagan.

"That's a good trend for us," Nierintz said.

Goliath struggles

Nierintz doesn't see competition against the likes of AMC or Regal Cinemas as a David-versus-Goliath matchup. After all, he said, he doesn't show the same movies at the same time as those first-run theaters.

With only a single screen, both theaters have to carefully consider which movies they show each week. Nierintz knows, for example, horror and sci-fi movies don't do particularly well. Perry shows Patriots games for free to bring in a crowd at an otherwise quiet time.

The theater chains that dominate the industry, meanwhile, have been moving upscale.

AMC has a dine-in theater with reclining seats and a full-service lobby bar in Framingham. In 2014, the company said it planned to spend $600 million to add reclining seats in its theaters across the country. In the months following installation of plush seating, revenues rose by one-third, AMC said.

Just two miles from the Elm is the Blackstone Valley 14 Cinema de Lux, which opened in 2004. The theater has reclining seats, a full bar and a menu with items like $23 bourbon steak tips and $24 parmesan crusted salmon, and bottles of wine that start at $30.

With streaming options at home, the industry's big players are having an even harder time competing than independent theaters, and have had to quickly adjust, said Anna Feder, a faculty member at Emerson College who curates the college's Bright Lights film series.

"They're constantly changing their model and finding new ways to compete," she said.

Unique programming or themed events are critical for independent theaters, Feder said. Critical for their continued success, she said, may be switching to nonprofit community organizations, as many others have done, which allow theaters to collect grants and sell memberships.

"The multiplex doesn't have that kind of community around it," Feder said.

Keeping it affordable

At just $5.50 for tickets, the Strand has prices to match the throwback era it recalls. The theater opened in 1923, operating through the 1970s until it sat largely vacant for decades. It opened again in 1995 after extensive work.

The Elm sits in what was originally a church in the 1800s. It closed for a period in the '70s and early '80s before opening again in 1983. Perry bought it in 2000 and has relied on regulars to keep business going.

"Everybody who comes in, they just love the feel, the vibe, the old-school feel," he said. "That's what keeps me in business. They're here for the pizza or the beer or the popcorn. The movie is secondary."

Even after investing in a new digital projection system and other upgrades, the Elm has kept prices just about the same. For more than 15 years, tickets were just $5. Now they're $6. The low prices extend to food and drinks and sometimes catch newcomers off guard.

"They'll say, 'I got all this for $10?'" Perry said.

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