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LI's mom-and-pop theaters fight against big multiplexes to fill seats

Paula Campaiola of Deer Park buys her tickets

Paula Campaiola of Deer Park buys her tickets from Sebastian Orlando at Elwood Quad, a four-screen movie theater in East Northport. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

Movie theater owner Jay Levinson is getting ready for a new arrival.

He will repaint the walls, upgrade the marquee and replace the carpet at his 1960s-era, four-screen theater, Elwood Quad, in East Northport in a few months. He also plans to lower ticket prices.

The new arrival he’s preparing for isn’t a blockbuster movie. 

It’s the new AMC Huntington Square 12, a state-of-the-art, 12-screen theater with reclining seats and stadium seating that will open at a former Sears department store site in East Northport — less than a mile from Elwood Quad — by the end of the year.

“We are concerned," said Levinson, who also owns the Bellmore Playhouse, a seven-screen movie theater that is about 20 years old. “When AMC opens, it’s going to be at least a 15% drop. It could be more,” he said.

The number of independent and small-chain movie theaters has been shrinking for years as they lose customers to large chains with more theater amenities, subscription-based online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, and other entertainment options. 

Long Island’s independent operators also cite the costs of the rising minimum wage and high taxes, utilities, rent and movie studio fees.

“I believe that the independent theaters will always be there. But there’s not many of us left,” Levinson said.

Long Island had a total of 40 movie theaters in 2018, down 21.6 percent from 51 in 2001, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Nationwide during the same period, the number declined 9.9 percent to 4,370 movie theaters, according to the bureau.

Company consolidations have resulted in the survival of the fittest.

Most of the movie theaters in the United States are mom-and-pop operations, but four large chains — AMC Entertainment Inc., Cineworld Group PLC (owner of Regal), Cinemark Holdings Inc. and The Marcus Corp. — account for about 55 percent of revenue, according to Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Association of Theatre Owners, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

AMC, the largest operator in the United States, has seven theaters on Long Island, including a 17-screen, 21-year-old venue in Stony Brook that it plans to renovate next year.

The company's new East Northport theater "will be a state-of-the-art, brand-new movie theater where people can expect the best that AMC has to offer," said Ryan Noonan, a spokesman for Leawood, Kansas-based AMC.

The 47,000-square-foot theater will have AMC Dine-in Delivery to Seat, which means that moviegoers can order from "a full menu of fresh, handcrafted entrees, appetizers and desserts" at the counter and have it delivered to their seats.

In June 2018, Regal opened its ninth Long Island theater — a $30 million, 13-screen venue in Lynbrook on the site of its closed six-screen theater that opened in 1922 and was demolished in 2016.

The new theater features reclining seats with electronic controls, stadium seating and kiosks for self-service ticketing. Knoxville, Tennessee-based Regal Cinemas is the second-largest theater operator.

New theaters have an average of eight to 12 screens, Corcoran said.

Closures on Long Island

Several theaters on Long Island have closed in recent years.

In 2014, the three-screen Babylon Cinemas was closed by Bow Tie Cinemas after 92 years of business. In 2011, Norwood, Massachusetts-based National Amusements Inc. closed Commack Multiplex Cinemas, a 13-screen venue built in 1983 as Long Island's first large-scale theater of its kind. National Amusements also closed its six-screen, 36-year-old Sunrise Multiplex Cinemas in 2015. 

Operators of independent theaters on Long Island are trying to remain competitive by adding amenities, such as upgraded seats, arcades, expanded food options and alcohol — if they can afford it. They also tout their assets, such as cheaper ticket prices and smaller crowds.

“It gets harder and harder, so you gotta keep raising your concession prices … which gets people angry, but at the same time, it’s that or you close,” said Jordan Desner, who took over Soundview Cinemas, a six-screen theater in Port Washington, in 2013 and bought Movieland, a seven-screen theater in Coram, in 2007.

The small theaters also are relying on revenue from renting their spaces for church groups, birthday parties and other private events, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, a Reston, Virginia-based media analytics company.

"You have to get really innovative and be nimble in terms of what kinds of offerings you have," he said.

Contending with growing competition from subscription and on-demand services offering movies and other video entertainment anywhere, anytime,  theater operators with deep pockets are finding ways to differentiate the moviegoing experience that include more 3D-capable theaters and full-service, dine-in restaurants, according to IBISWorld Inc., a market research firm in Los Angeles. 

Rockville Centre resident Nick Ryerson, 28, was at the Regal theater in Lynbrook Wednesday night to see an early-access screening of "Doctor Sleep."

After paying for a $14 ticket, he said he prefers to watch movies online via subscription services, like Netflix and HBO Go, because of the convenience and savings.

“I use all of them,” he said.

Independents tout prices

Levinson’s Elwood Quad has been hit hard by competition before. 

Ticket sales fell 15 percent when the 16-screen Regal Deer Park IMAX and RPX opened at Tanger Outlets in 2008, but they picked back up when the multiplex in Commack closed in 2011, he said. 

Birthday parties have been the saving grace at Elwood Quad in recent years, Levinson said.

He rents out his auditoriums for about 1,000 birthday parties a year, he said.

He also banks on parents of young children who are more willing to take their entire families out for a night at the movies at an independent theater like Elwood, whose ticket and concession prices won’t break the bank, he said. 

The average price of a movie ticket nationally is $9.33.

General admission for adults after 4 p.m. at Elwood Quad is $10, with $7 tickets for seniors and kids.

With the opening of the AMC theater in East Northport, Levinson said he's considering reducing prices to $7 for adults and $6 for seniors and kids.  Elwood's current $5 Tuesday special may be lowered to $4, and the $5 ticket price for seniors on Thursdays could be lowered to $4 too, he said.  

The theater is 6.6 miles from AMC Shore 8 in Huntington, which has reclining seats, reserved seating and online ordering for food and drinks, and sells general admission tickets for adults for $13.29 after 4 p.m. weeknights and $14.29 after 4 p.m. on weekends.

At the Regal in Deer Park,  7.1 miles from the Elwood theater, general admission tickets are $14.45 after 5 p.m. weekdays and after noon on weekends.

As the market has changed, Elwood has lost a lot of the teenage and young adult audience, Levinson said.

“The younger crowd 40 and less, they love the beautiful multiplexes and they’re willing to pay anything,” he said.

Levinson won't be able to afford to match the amenities of his new East Northport competitor, he said.  For example, Elwood only has 100 seats per theater, so adding reclining seats, which would reduce the number of seats by about 50 percent, is not an option, he said.

But he does plan to start selling tickets online at Fandango to reach a broader audience after the new AMC theater opens, he said. 

Joe and Joan Leone, both 72, were at the Elwood theater to see "Judy" on Thursday, when tickets for senior citizens are $5 all day.

The East Northport couple go to that theater once a month.

"The prices are reasonable, especially for seniors .... fixed income.  You know how it is," said Joan Leone, who said she didn't understand how families with young children could afford to go to the newer theaters.

Concessions generate higher profit margins for theaters than movie ticket sales, according to IBISWorld.  This year, food and beverage sales account for an estimated 29.8 percent of industry revenue.

“Theaters are doing a lot more food and liquor because you need a lot more sources of income to survive in this business now.  The studios take a very, very large portion of the box office, which makes it very difficult for [small] movie theaters to pay their bills,” Desner said.

The largest, publicly traded theater companies report paying 53 percent to 56 percent of ticket sales to studios, Corcoran said.

A popular Disney movie can command 65 percent of ticket sales, Desner said.

He added leather rockers — which take up less space than recliners — as well as new screens, carpeting and drapes to Movieland in 2007 and Soundview in 2013.  Plus, Soundview is decked out in Medieval-themed décor and got a new concession stand in 2013.  Movieland has an arcade.

Desner is considering adding alcohol sales to the theaters but is concerned that doing so will spur parents to keep their kids away, he said.

It's all in the seats

Elmont resident Nicole Ranselle, 32, goes to the movies at the Regal in Lynbrook twice a month, she said while walking to the theater with a friend Wednesday night.

She said she is a fan of the reserved seating and recliners at Regal.

She's been to Movieland, too, but said she prefers the seats in newer theaters.

New seats are on the agenda at Merrick Cinemas 5, built in 2000 and bought by Dean Theodorous in 2017. 

“He’s put a lot of work into it and he’s thinking long term,” said Barry Kogan, general manager.

That work has included renovating the lobby, bathrooms and façade and adding a beer and wine bar.

“We’re doing all right.  We’re not doing the capacity we should be doing,” Kogan said.

The problem is the seats — the traditional theater seats are about to be replaced, he said.

“We’ll do a combination of the recliners and then a high-end leather seat that would still have a bigger footprint than the old seating,” Kogan said.

Anne and Henry Stampfel own three traditional movie theaters — the five-screen Malverne Cinema, the one-screen North Shore Tower Cinemas in Queens and the one-screen Bellmore Movies and Showplace, which is more than 100 years old.

Malverne has been particularly challenged by competition from the new Regal theater that opened 1 1/2 miles away in Lynbrook last year, Anne Stampfel said. 

The Stampfels also have taken issue with the new theater receiving tax break approval from the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency in 2015.

The theater development, which was part of an economic revitalization plan for downtown Lynbrook, received IDA approval for a sales tax exemption of up to $567,000 on the purchase of construction materials and equipment; a mortgage recording tax exemption of more than $284,000; and a 20-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement that freezes taxes for the first two years and then raises them incrementally for the remainder of the term.

But the Stampfels, who have owned movie theaters since the mid-1980s, plan to stick it out, Anne Stampfel said.

"When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so we're doing what we can.  I'm not looking to walk away. I almost don't know anything else," she said.

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