Solar plexes: Cinema West captures sunlight and moviegoers

Features

“Taking yourself out of an owner’s shoes and putting yourself in those of your customers is something that you regularly have to do,” insists Dave Corkill of Petaluma, Calif.-based Cinema West. “What would you want if you were the customer?”

For the owner-operator of 96 screens at 12 locations throughout Northern California (www.cinemawest.com), that mindset covers a wide range—from digital projection and energy-efficient operations, to enhancing a theatre and fostering its communal ambiance, to concession selection and reasonable prices. “Offering value and innovation to our customers is first and foremost in every decision that we make.”

When Corkill took over the single screen NOYO Theatre in Willits back in 1981, he had been dealing in real-estate sales. Thirty years later, he is still running that same theatre, albeit with three screens, one of the chain’s smaller venues. (The Palladio 16 in Folsom is the circuit’s largest.)

“I had the opportunity to exercise an option to buy a theatre building that a friend of mine was running at the time,” he recalls. “Through that relationship, I ended up operating movie theatres myself later on.”

Starting out with a string of classic screens and still preserving many of those “interesting older theatres,” as Corkill calls them, “we found that remodeling and adding on more screens” was the way to go and grow. “Most of our smaller theatres, thankfully, are located far enough away from the competitor’s big ones. They have their own market that supports them. It is not always convenient for those guests to get to a multiplex,” he explains. “Our first brand-new theatre was our Sonoma 9 Cinemas in 1994. Going forward, we’ve been building state-of-the-art theatres”—all the while upgrading and adding on to movie houses from Angels Camp to Tiburon.

Except for “a couple of film theatres, which are really smaller locations for which we don’t have longer-term plans to continue operating,” the entire circuit has been converted to digital projection. Cinema West “joined the original rollout” of Christie and what was AccessIT then and is Cinedigm now, Corkill reviews. “We had learned early in the game about the availability of that program and aggressively sought to retrofit our circuit as part thereof. I’m glad we did that. Looking at the business model, it made a lot of sense for us. Although we were one of the first to convert, we don’t regret the decision. In fact, it was a good one. Going digital allowed us to stay a step ahead of the competition in virtually every market where our theatres are located.” More recently powered by Barco, Cinema West also has 29 RealD 3D systems and has brought D-Box motion seats to four of its markets. For Corkill, this is “part of moving forward in a direction that is ‘new cinema’ versus ‘old theatre,’” he feels. “The public is always seeking out the newest, latest, greatest thing. In order for us to survive, we have to offer just that.”

“New cinema” also means an environmentally conscious approach. With the December 2009 launch in Folsom, Cinema West became the proud holder of not only the first, but also the three largest “solar-power system installations on the roof of a movie theatre anywhere in the world.” The 792 panels at Palladio 16 generate about 40% of the annual electricity consumed by the 2,980-seat megaplex. “Our investment in solar technology,” Corkill hopes, “will end up being a good economic decision in addition to being a great one for the environment. It is really too early to tell how this will pan out for us. We will do more installations but will evaluate the existing ones a little bit longer.” When, in fall 2008, SPG Solar installed the very first set of 42 solar photovoltaic modules on the roof of the 1950s Fairfax Theatre in the town of the same name, the manufacturer estimated savings of $627,000 over the 30-year lifespan. The six-plex’s 27-kilowatt solar system is also expected “to offset nearly 1,000 tons of greenhouse gases, including over two million pounds of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing 180 cars off the road.” The 805-module, 132-kilowatt system sitting on top of Livermore Cinemas 13 in Livermore generates “enough electricity to power 19 Bay Area homes for 25 years,” SPG Solar drew the comparison after completing installation in April 2009.

While “we do recycling wherever possible” throughout the circuit, for the Folsom Palladio, Cinema West also “designed many energy alternatives that are unique to that location,” Corkill confirms. “Instead of installing traditional neon lighting, for example, we did LED rope neon, which has a very similar appearance but uses a fraction of the energy.” About the poster cases and signage at box office and concessions, Corkill reports how Cinema West and Schult Industries pioneered the all-LED lit approach. “We’re the circuit that started them on the program because we didn’t want to use neon in our Livermore theatre. We found the source for the LED roped neon and worked together on developing a poster case we were happy with.” Cinema West continues to be a customer “and we support what Schult is doing.”

Going back to the first solar plex, Corkill shares his reasons for adding such energy-efficient technology. “Fairfax is one of those unique theatres in small markets that are enormously successful. It is most likely the highest-attended movie theatre in the United States with less than 500 seats. We own the real estate and are always improving the theatre. Going solar was consistent with what we have done there over the past 15 years.” The community as well is special. “Fairfax has numerous environmental ordinances that are unique to that town, as opposed to others in the United States. Investing in that solar system has made a positive statement for our business.”

While the State Theatre in downtown Petaluma, where he “saw all the Disney movies when I was a kid and a lot of great memories started,” holds a special place for him, Corkill pauses when asked to name his personal best theatre. “Oh, gosh, there are so many good ones,” he responds with a sigh. “If I was told tomorrow that I had to sell all of our theatres and could only keep one, I would probably keep the Fairfax. I like the community and it is the kind of theatre where I’d like to sit in the box office to sell tickets and talk to the people that come in every day. Fairfax has all the amenities that you could ask for in a theatre…and it is located where we’ll never have to see a multiplex being built down the road.”

On the road ahead are two new sites for Cinema West and a complete overhaul of the three-screen Playhouse in Tiburon. “We are adding a fourth screen while the entire theatre is being retrofitted to stadium seating. Upon completion, the Playhouse will offer reserved seats, beer and wine and a full food menu,” Corkill reveals. “Tiburon and Belvedere are very unique, upscale and well-moneyed communities. We are going to turn this theatre into probably one of the nicest in the entire country.”

Asked about the reasonable prices the Playhouse currently charges, Corkill reveals another company policy. “Tiburon hasn’t been remodeled in 15 years and we don’t raise our prices if we don’t give our public more for it.”

Does he believe there will be more conversions to that concept? “As our industry matures, we are going to be forced to offer amenities such as beer and wine,” Corkill foresees. “Instead of Tiburon being the exception, in the future offering beer and wine will be more along the lines of the norm for movie theatres. Unless you are a large, regional megaplex” he qualifies, “you have to offer amenities to the customers that keep them from going elsewhere.”

In the Southern California City of Hesperia, one of the two new locations that Cinema West has secured, some 83,000 people don’t even have a place to go see a movie yet. “Clearly, that’s a good number to attract us to a location where all the right ingredients are in place,” Corkill states. “One of the things we have been really good at is to develop theatres in partnership with municipalities and their communities. We have done quite a few downtown movie theatres and have thereby developed a good track record and credibility.”

Going “outside of our core area,” he says, “is just part of growing. If we are going to grow, we can’t always find the locations that we want close to home. But as long as we can effectively manage them…and in this era of electronic technology, that is a lot easier than it used to be. For us, it’s really about keeping our business small enough to be able to see our tail and be efficient, but also being large enough to be important to the people we do business with, such as distributors and suppliers. It’s a fine line we all walk in this business,” Corkill concludes. “Which direction do we want to go? Are we going to be huge or stay small? I think we’re somewhere in between.” And, certainly, staying ahead of the curve.