Common logic tells you that now is not the time to open a movie theater. Streaming services have audiences enthralled, and portable screens – even ones that fit in your pocket – pose a bigger threat to movie exhibitors than the giant ones that came into fashion just a few years ago.
But Central Cinema in Happy Holler is swimming against the stream, so to speak. The single-screen neighborhood theater at 1205 N. Central St. is celebrating its first anniversary and looking forward to adding even more fans.
“We’ve been doing pretty well,” says William Mahaffey, who owns the theater along with Nick Huinker and Logan Myers. “It’s definitely tight sometimes, but we’ve always paid our bills – we’ve never been late on any bills – and after a few months we started paying ourselves a little bit.”
Central Cinema had its “soft opening” Aug. 16, 2018, with a midnight screening of “Our House” and officially opened Aug. 17 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Wild at Heart.” But the owners started the anniversary celebration last week with such favorites as “Enter the Dragon,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Return of the Jedi.”
“We’re kind of considering the whole month the anniversary,” Mahaffey says.
This weekend’s diverse slate includes “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive” and David Fincher’s “Fight Club.” On Monday, Central Cinema will show its first Alfred Hitchcock film, “Foreign Correspondent,” starring Joel McCrea.
The official anniversary weekend will be a “Dino-versary” with “Jurassic Park” and “The Land Before Time.” In coordination with the upcoming Alien Xpo, the theater will also show the 1993 alien-abduction film “Fire in the Sky.”
Programming at Central Cinema is eclectic. There are cult films, nostalgic films, films fitting a theme, new films and classic films. There are monthly series featuring Asian, horror, silent and Appalachian films. There’s even a night for local skaters to bring their skate videos.
The partners got their start in horror films: Mahaffey and Huinker created the Knoxville Horror Film Fest in 2009, and Myers was a filmmaker who submitted works to the fest.
“We all had kind of a similar concept, but we all have different interests and different experience,” Mahaffey says.
Running the horror festival led to partnerships with Ijams Nature Center (the team will be showing “Alice in Wonderland” at Ijams on the anniversary weekend) and other local venues and film lovers, and it also gave them a foundation in film exhibition.
“If we hadn’t been doing the film fest, we wouldn’t have been able to do the theater because we already had a really good set of contacts in place to where we could book movies immediately,” says Mahaffey. “With most people, if you were starting a movie theater, doing construction and getting soda and popcorn, like, all that stuff you can understand, but a lot of people don’t know how do you contact these studios and book movies and how does it work? But since we already knew all that, that part was easier.
“Sometimes it’s hard tracking down rights or getting certain studios to work with you – that hasn’t gotten easier. But overall, it’s definitely become a lot more natural.”
As an independent theater, Central Cinema has more leeway than a chain theater does. It has a membership program that provides discounts on admission and concessions and also offers special screenings and receptions. While the owners make decisions on which films to show, “We try to pay attention to what the customers want,” Mahaffey says.
When film genres or schedules don’t work, he says they try something else.
They know they have to grow their customer base in order to succeed long term, and they’re committed to that. They have great faith in their location in Happy Holler, with neighbors like the Time Warp Tea Room, Central Flats & Taps, Chop Shop hair salon, Raven Records & Rarities, Relix and Retrospect Vintage Store, and they’re glad to be part of that community.
“A lot of people who don’t live downtown or near downtown have an idea about this area being dangerous or not being as nice,” says Mahaffey. “But we have new people every week, so word of mouth is definitely good.”
Central Cinema concentrates on making movie-watching a pleasant experience.
“People seem to enjoy the different atmosphere here,” says Mahaffey. “That really helps keep us going. It’s the thing that makes you feel really good about it.”