LEOMINSTER — If you haven’t been to the movie theater by the mall recently, you’re missing out on some great updates that have brought the entire cinema experience to a whole new level.
The luxurious leather recliners installed at the Entertainment Cinemas location over the last three years breathed new life into the 10-screen movie theater that has managed to stand the pandemic test of time, quite the feat during these challenging times for small business owners.
“They cost more than my couch at my house,” Easton-based Entertainment Cinemas owner Bill Hanney quipped about the recliners that came with a price tag of $600 each.
The comfy new seating is just part of a $1 million investment Hanney has put into the theater since purchasing it out of Loews Theaters bankruptcy several years ago. He said at that time, other theaters in the region had been converted from stores but that they “always have had the luxury of having a real theater to work with,” complete with 30- to 40-foot ceilings.
“We had that volume and theater feel to begin with.”
Other updates include “cleaning up the place” and a café located in the back lobby that offers adults drinks, food, and more in addition to the concession stand in the main lobby.
“People thought I had rocks in my head,” Hanney said of the money he poured into the Leominster cinema over the years. “It’s a big investment in an industry that we don’t know how it will go.”
He began installing the new reclining chairs in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, after renovating the theater to stadium seating. They had completed four or five of the theaters before the pandemic shut down in March of 2020 and then “when things started to get a little better, I thought we better finish things up.”
“Time passes on, and the industry changes and the new big thing was going to be the big chairs,” Hanney noted. “When we renovated, we didn’t just take out old chairs. The new ones are twice as long and twice as wide as the old ones. It has been a huge construction project.”
The Leominster location now rivals other theaters in the region that also boast leather recliners, including O’Neil Cinemas in Littleton, and makes the movie-going experience that much more enjoyable for customers. Hanney said that while he considers the other individually owned movie theaters in Athol, Fitchburg, and Gardner “friendly competitors” but he feels the updates to his theater make it the cream of the crop.
“I believe we have the best location of the four,” he said, adding that having The Mall at Whitney Field and numerous fast food and other restaurants right there is a huge benefit. “We went from number four in the market to number one with a bullet.”
Hanney owns a total of six movie theaters under the Entertainment Cinemas umbrella. Two on his Cape Cod home base, locations in Falmouth and South Dennis, both of which he is also in the process of renovating. He also owns one on Martha’s Vineyard, one in New Hampshire and one in Rhode Island. In addition, he owns and operates several live theater venues across New England that he said thankfully have also managed to withstand the challenging pandemic times.
Over a decade ago, Hanney took over the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly and one of the many jewels in his business crown, Theatre by the Sea in Kingston, Rhode Island, will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2023. He remembers thinking when things were shaky in 2020 and last year that when it specifically came to that historic space, he was “not going to let the pandemic close this theater on my clock.”
But that doesn’t mean any of his theaters were never in danger of closing down. Hanney credits a couple of his landlords “who are like family,” including Dave Gagney who owns the building the Leominster theater is housed in, with helping to keep his businesses afloat.
“When we shut down, I went to Dave and said, ‘I don’t know what to do here,’” Hanney remembers. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about that, we won’t charge you rent. The theater has been here 40 years, we don’t want to lose it.’”
He thanked Gagney, told him he “comes from really good stock,” and asked if when they were finally able to reopen, he could give him a percentage of sales. Gagney said yes told Hanney, “Whatever it takes to keep you open.”
Hanney did say that while the shutdown gave them “more time to install the seats,” the number of moviegoers hasn’t quite bounced back to pre-pandemic times.
While the Leominster theater is doing good revenue-wise now, Hanney commented that movies going directly to streaming while theaters were closed down and that still being the case in tandem with theater releases “destroyed” the movie theater industry.
As the president of Theatre Owners of New England, a nonprofit that works with theater owners, he said he has spoken to many proprietors who have been left with no choice but to shut down.
“We have been hard to the point where a lot of it doesn’t come back,” Hanney said. “Number one, people had to find a different way of watching movies and bought big screens to watch at home. Older people had to learn how to stream movies. Second, film companies got their way, and they became the driver. We no longer have the power. That harmed us, but not to the point of obliteration. There are probably too many screens. Maybe there needs to be less, and they need to be better.”
He did say that moviegoers seemed to realize, especially over this past summer when there was “the whole crazy gross of movies, that we are good to have around.”
“Be the best theater in town and if you can, people will find you,” Hanney said. “And we have noticed that people love it, and that’s all you need.”
He is hopeful movie production will catch up after “lagging behind” because of the pandemic and that more new movies will be theatrically released in the coming months and years instead of just streaming, which became the norm when movie theaters were shut down.
“That will change throughout October and through the holidays,” Hanney said of the lineup of new, highly anticipated movies coming out this month and beyond, including two potentially huge blockbuster sequels – “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of the Water.”
“As long as we can make it through the lag period where they can make more movies, we’ll be okay.”
For now, he’s staying focusing on what’s left of the updates in Leominster and said they’ll be finishing up installing recliners in the remainder of the theaters over the next few weeks.
He also pointed out the new, fancy sign visible from Interstate 190, a modern digital message board used for advertising that measures six by 20 feet.
“Now the pigeons have a new place to roost,” Hanney joked.
He himself is a “huge moviegoer” and goes out to the movies weekly, usually on Saturday nights down on the Cape. Where else can “people experience entertainment in a low-cost way” with typically two to two and a half hours of entertainment at a reasonably low cost, even for a family, he remarked.
“There is nothing like seeing a movie on a big screen and you are experiencing it all together, laughing and crying together,” Hanney said. “You can watch ‘Star Wars’ at home but it’s not the same as the theater experience. I can cook, but I still go to restaurants because I like going out and you get a great experience.”