WINDHAM – Smitty’s Cinema, once located next to the North Windham Post Office, is making a dramatic return to Windham.
Owner Milton Smith, who ran the former Chunky’s and Smitty’s from 1995 to 2005, is investing $1.5 million to renovate the recently vacated Five-Star Cinema in the Windham Mall and expects to open in April. Smith owns the theater along with his brothers MacGregor, Benton and Cabot Smith.
The bulk of the initial investment is to upgrade each of the seven screens to digital projection and surround sound. The theater upgrade, estimated at $80,000 per screen, is necessary since movies are transferring to a digital format starting this year.
Since Smitty’s will allow patrons to eat food while watching movies, further investment is being made to construct a kitchen and dishwashing station in additional leased space. Smith also is converting the sloped stadium-style seating into flat, terraced sections. He is installing tables and buying several hundred leather theater-style seats with castor wheels, estimated to cost $200 each.
Smitty’s is making a return to Windham and occupying the space of its former competitor, which once out-competed Smitty’s for new releases from Hollywood. Smitty’s, Smith said, closed in 2005 due to Five-Star’s domination of the Windham market.
However, Massachusetts-based Five-Star, which has occupied part of the Windham Mall space since 1997, was long considered a “break-even operation,” said Five-Star district manager Brad Brown, who lives in nearby Casco. Brown said the company is making the digital conversion for most of its 16 movie theaters, which span from Bangor to Long Island, N.Y., but was unwilling to make the investment in the North Windham location. He said the theater did well in the summer months but didn’t fare as well at other times of the year.
“It’s a very expensive endeavor, it’s a big investment,” Brown said of the transition to digital. “And it just wasn’t a profitable theater.”
Milton Smith said the concept of coupling the movie-watching experience with pub-style food and drinks is becoming a trend across the country, with major theater companies such as Regal and AMC beginning to offer similar experiences. Smith said Windham welcomed the concept years ago and he feels it will be welcomed once again. But getting the popular new releases will be a big bonus, he added.
“We’ve done this concept for 20 years now and we know people love it. It’s just a matter of treating the customer right when they come in,” Smith said. “We know they’re coming in to see a movie first, and then they’re getting something to eat secondarily. So the movie is what draws the customer. So if Hollywood releases good movies, we’ll have a good year. It’s plain and simple.”
Smith knows the Windham market and said Smitty’s closure in 2005 was caused by the larger cinema’s competitive advantage, since theaters in the same town can’t feature the same films. As a result, the much-publicized films that drew large audiences went to Five-Star.
“We moved in 1995 to Windham and did great,” Smith said. “Business was fantastic the first couple of years. We did great until [Five-Star] opened up and took all of our business because they had seven screens, and we only had two. So we fought over products, which is the movies, each week. And when trying to compete against a guy with seven screens, you can’t get the movies.”
Since 2005, Smith has been overseeing the company’s other theaters in Sanford, Biddeford, and Tilton, N.H., and actively looking for new locations.
“And it’s not an easy fit to find our requirements, which include trying to find an area where there’s no other theater within 10-mile radius at the very least,” he said. “We also need the right rent, lots of parking, high ceilings and certain column spacing between supports for the roof. So there are so many factors that go into it.”
Converting the stadium-style seating in the theater is an expensive and lengthy process, as is buying the necessary kitchen equipment. Smith is also converting the sound system in each theater, as well.
“This theater only had one speaker behind the screen, we’re upgrading so we have a left, center, right and a subwoofer,” Smith said. “So you’re not just upgrading your projection but your sound equipment at the same time.”
Construction is being done by local contractors such as Paul G. White Interiors, Perry Electric and General Carriage and Supply.
While Brown said the former Five-Star employed about 15 in the high season, Smitty’s, since it is a restaurant as well, will employ about 50-60 people, mostly part-time workers.
“We’re going to have servers and runners, dish-people and cooks and cleaners, management, so it adds up quickly,” Smith said.
Acting as general manager will be Tucker Smith, son of Milton Smith’s brother, MacGregor.
The theater, which Smith said will likely add an eighth screen in 2014, will operate year-round, with an afternoon matinee and evening show Mondays through Thursdays in winter. Two matinees and two evening shows will be shown Fridays through Sundays in the winter. In the summer months and during school vacations, the cinema will show two matinees and two evening shows each day.
In order to gain daytime visits, Smith said the theater will run free shows several times throughout the week, with profits expected from food and drink sales. On Sundays in football season, the cinema will show live New England Patriots games for free. Every other Wednesday, Smith said parents and kids can watch a free movie in a promotion known as Mommy and Me.
“And kids can be loud if they need to be loud,” Smith said.
Way-Back Wednesdays will take place on Wednesday nights when the theater will play older classics such as “Dirty Dancing” and Adam Sandler movies. Entry is free for those as well.
Smith is glad to be back in Windham, and hopes the venture will be successful.
“When we started, we were one of very few doing it across the country. In the last 20 years, it’s really exploded,” Smith said. “Last year was pretty good, and, nationally, box office attendance was up last year, so if we can continue that trend, we’ll all be happy.”