Independent movie operators filling void left by big chains

Last year, Classic Cinemas, based in Downers Grove with 16 venues and 137 screens, signed a lease and spent $1.5 million to refurbish the six-screen La Grange Theatre, a downtown fixture for almost a century. Before that, the company took over an empty Regal property, the Kendall 11, in Oswego.

“The biggest four movie theater chains in the nation are all publicly owned and seem to be on the sidelines now,” says Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, who reports attendance at Classic is up 60% so far this year compared with January 2022.

“While some of the big-box chains have been shrinking in size, it’s been surprising to see these smaller independents coming into the Chicago market. They’re all fine operators and have a good chance to be successful here.”

Texas-based Cinergy Dine-In Cinemas has taken over a seven-screen property in Wheeling Town Center vacated by CMX. Another Texas operator, Star Cinema Grill, based in Houston, has taken over the former IPIC Theaters property in South Barrington.

ACX, which has four theaters open, has invested $4 million in taking over a former six-screen IPIC location in the Milwaukee suburb of Glendale with plans to add bowling, family entertainment and a pizza restaurant, all to be open by this summer. It won’t have room for all of that at the four-screen Harper, where 220 new luxury seats (which cost $600 each) are being installed for a planned spring opening.

“Older theaters are becoming available right now, and the investment to get them up and running is a lot cheaper than trying to build from the ground up,” says Michael Barstow, son of ACX founder William Barstow and an executive vice president who has been based in Chicago recently looking for opportunities in this area.

Barstow doesn’t worry about competition from the biggest chains. “Most of them are dealing with big sums of debt,” he says. “Independents are growing because they’re small and agile and haven’t borrowed so extensively.”

Many landlords seem to like the idea of extending leases to smaller tenants these days. The Harper has been owned for the past two decades by the nearby University of Chicago and had been operated by a small operator until last year when he retired. Philip Gold, the university’s executive director of commercial real estate, says that he visited with the Barstow family in Omaha, Neb., and was impressed by their commitment to first-run films.

“We’re stewards of this community asset,” Gold says. “We wanted to be sure we were doing the right thing.”

Two more area theaters are in the process of redevelopment, with the prospect of live entertainment in their futures. A dozen companies are bidding on the Pickwick Theatre, founded in 1928, in Park Ridge. The owner, Dino Vlahakis, is expected to announce soon that it will be leased to an operator who doesn’t intend to screen movies.

In Barrington, the Catlow Theater, built in 1927, is now closed but has been sold to a downtown businessman who plans to turn it into a “multipurpose venue.” One way or the other, the shows must go on.

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