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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Mystic cinema owners acquire Westbrook multiplex, plan to reopen it Jan. 13

    The exterior of Westbrook Cinemas (Bill Dougherty)
    The lobby of Westbrook Cinemas (Bill Dougherty)

    The co-owners of cinemas in Mystic and Madison have bought another business: the multiplex in Westbrook.

    Marquee Cinemas closed its 12-screen Westbrook location in September. Bill Dougherty and Harold Blank — who co-own Mystic Luxury Cinemas, Madison Cinemas and South County Luxury Cinemas in Rhode Island — say they will reopen the Westbrook movie theater on Jan. 13.

    They have plans to renovate the 24-year-old building and bring in elements that have proven popular at their other venues: heated recliners; expanded concessions, including beer and wine; and offerings such as concert screenings in addition to movies.

    “Both Harold and I are very excited about this location and are really looking forward to bringing this back to a locally owned and operated theater that everybody’s going to be proud of,” Dougherty said.

    But it’s going to be a process to get the site to how they envision it.

    “We’re asking everybody to be patient over the next months,” Dougherty said. “We’re going to unveil the master plan to turn it into Westbrook Luxury Cinemas.”

    For now, though, they are giving it a good general cleaning to get it ready to open as Westbrook Cinemas.

    This is the latest purchase for the business partners. Dougherty bought Mystic cinemas in 2006, and Blank came on board in 2015; they renovated the site and made it into a luxury theater.

    In December of 2021, they finalized their purchase of the two-screen Madison Cinemas, which they have been operating since then. They acquired the eight-screen South Kingstown, R.I., cinema in the summer of 2020; they renovated it and now run it as South County Luxury Cinemas.

    They have looked at other movie theaters as well. Dougherty and Blank had spoken with the Mitchell family, who ran Niantic Cinemas until recently closing it, several years ago. At that point, the Mitchells decided to keep the theater in the family. Dougherty said there are currently no discussions with them about the site.

    Westbrook will screen a mix of blockbuster releases, family pictures, and more.

    “We’re going to play everything in here,” Dougherty said, adding that will include some smaller art films.

    Dougherty said his and Blank’s interest in acquiring Westbrook dates back to 2019.

    “Then COVID hit, and that kind of upended all those plans,” he said.

    They revived the idea late last year. The purchase of the business was completed about a month ago. Dougherty declined to specify the price.

    The move comes at a time when cinemas are closing. Dougherty, though, remains optimistic about the movie-theater business.

    Asked to explain why he said, “It’s very simple. Everybody loves going to the movies. … I’ve been doing this since, what, the late ‘70s, and we’ve seen so many changes, from the single screen to the twins, then we saw the VCR tapes come out and that was going to change everything, then obviously the Blu-rays and the Blockbusters.

    “Through all of that, the one thing that’s never changed is people love going to the movies. Has (the business) changed? Yes, it has, but no differently than it’s been changing since I started doing this.”

    The key is to continually evolve, he said.

    “Has it been easy? No. We go through some real bad times. It was hard (early in the pandemic), but we had great community support,” Dougherty said.

    During the first wave of the pandemic, for instance, people donated to a GoFundMe to help the Mystic cinema.

    “It was a community effort to keep that theater going, it really was,” he said, referencing the efforts of the team that works at the theater as well.

    “My partner and I never wavered and were determined to make it work,” he said.

    Changing with the times

    Certain aspects of film distribution have shifted over the past few years. Dougherty acknowledged that, for instance, a lot of smaller independent art films now go directly to streaming platforms.

    The amount of time between releases appearing in movie theaters and on streaming services has shrunk as well.

    Dougherty said that he often asks people, “What’s the difference between streaming and watching TV?” Everybody gives the same response, he said: nothing.

    Certain movies still draw crowds.

    “As soon as we put ‘Avatar’ on our marquees, we don’t have enough seats,” he said.

    Dougherty said that attendance at Mystic Luxury Cinemas is now back to where it was in 2019, pre-pandemic.

    “We kept the theater relevant during that pandemic,” he said. “We did a lot of theater rentals (where someone could rent out an entire auditorium for a screening) while all the other theaters were closed, so we were able to bring in a lot of new guests that had never been to that theater.”

    He said those new guests would often call the theater later to schedule their own rental.

    Westbrook will also be available for rentals.

    Backgrounds in the business

    Dougherty grew up in the business; his father was part of a partnership that owned numerous movie theaters in Connecticut.

    Blank, a Waterbury native who now lives outside of Boston, has been in the movie-theater business for four decades and has built theaters in six countries.

    They continue to innovate. They showed several World Cup games for free at all three of their theaters. Madison was filled, with 165 people, and Mystic also saw all the available seats taken.

    And there is still an audience for films. Dougherty noted that by 11 a.m. on Wednesday this week, more than 150 people were watching one of the movies at Mystic Luxury Cinemas.

    People showed up on Christmas morning, too.

    Dougherty, whose mother, father and brother have all passed away, said, “I had a great family, but they’re not with me. So Christmas morning is my favorite show to work the whole year because I miss my family, and so for me to be in my theater and be open at a time when nobody else is open – I don’t care if 10 people show up. Well, guess what? 125 people walked in that (Mystic) theater on Christmas morning by 10:30.”

    Preserving local cinemas

    While they are reopening Westbrook, Dougherty is aware of all the other cinemas that have recently been shuttered. He runs down a list of Connecticut shoreline towns where that has happened: Norwalk, Fairfield, Bridgeport, Stratford, Orange, Branford, North Haven, Westbrook, Niantic and Stonington.

    “I’m sure there are a lot of folks in those towns that wish they had the movie theater back, especially on a holiday week,” he said. “I know I’m a little sappy about this industry, but to me, these must be preserved. People must support these. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. Again, these towns, I’m sure, wish they still had them.”

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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