The town will hold two meetings this month to solicit public input on a plan to have a New Jersey-based company operate the Playhouse on Elm Street.
Over the past several months, the town has been working toward a proposed lease agreement with Montclair, N.J. Cinema Lab. The discussions have been held out of the public eye, with the town claiming an exemption from Connecticut Freedom of Information Act under the “real estate” category.
Yet during last week’s regular meeting of the Town Council, details of the proposal with Cinema Lab were made public, and the legislative body scheduled public hearings at 7 p.m. on June 23 and 29, both in-person at Town Hall and via videoconference, to take public comments.
According to First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, the town is preparing to allocate $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds as well as another $1 million in bonded funds toward capital upgrades at the Elm Street building. Moynihan also noted during the Town Council meeting that New Canaan has built up an additional approximately $800,000 through collecting rent from tenants at the 1923-built Elm Street building.
Cinema Lab, under the proposed agreement, “will invest $1.5 million on the inside—new seats, new screen, projection equipment, sound system, bar,” Moynihan said during the Town Council’s June 15 meeting at Town Hall. “They will have the entire building, including the second floor. They will operate a ‘membership club’ on the second floor along Costco lines—anybody can join, it’s not an exclusive club.”
Moynihan said that movie companies take about 65% of all tickets sold so that movie theaters must find other revenue sources in order to be viable.
Plans call for “some alternative programing with independent films,” though “90% will be first-run movies,” Moynihan said. Because New Canaan is not “in the catchment area of Stamford and Norwalk, we can run first-run movies without the movie companies objecting,” he said.
The town is contemplating a 15-year agreement in which New Canaan would take in about three times the rent of the prior tenant, Bow Tie Cinemas, Moynihan said.
During the meeting, Town Council Chair Steve Karl called for town officials to elaborate for the public on some of what’s planned for the Playhouse, including how it would change, if at all, inside or outside.
Bill Oestmann, buildings superintendent with the Department of Public Works, said the outside “is really not going to change much at all.” The town would preserve the front of the building and marquee. The left-hand side of the Elm Street-facing front, where there currently is a display window, would be “opened back up for floor space in the lobby,” he said.
A bar would be installed on that side, with concessions on the right-hand side and the Playhouse would have a “1920s vibe to it,” Oestmann said.
The new seats will recline and there will be tables with lamps between them for theatergoers to put down their drinks, he said.
Plans also call for the return of an expanded balcony, which was lost when the movie theater was twinned, Oestmann said. The seats up there would be even more comfortable, and members of the Playhouse would have access to them, he said.
The building’s windows themselves would be replaced but will look the exact same, and the movie theater’s bathrooms would be moved back upstairs—where they were prior to 1970, he said—and accessible to all via an elevator as well as a staircase. (The elevator itself is an ADA requirement if the second floor is going to be used.) The town has already finished a roof replacement, and officials have approved funds for exterior repair work to the building with plans for more ADA access upgrades.
Regarding Cinema Lab, Moynihan said, “I think we’ve really developed a very good relationship with these folks.”
The town did talk to four other potential operators of the Playhouse, Moynihan said, but in each case issues emerged that made Cinema Lab stand out as a better choice. For example, one large operator wasn’t interested in working with a small two-screen cinema (the Playhouse will remain a two-screen theater). Another prospective operator wasn’t willing to invest its own capital into redoing the interior of the Playhouse, he said.
Cinema Lab is “a very entrepreneurial group,” Moynihan said.
“They are looking to take over closed theaters that many majors, like Bow Tie, have closed—small-town theaters like ours,” he said. “Cinema Lab currently operates in South Orange, N.J. and they are working on Miami Beach and they have an other screen out in Colorado.”
“They have a lot of expertise in movies and they are very very into operating family-oriented, town-supported operations,” Moynihan said.
During the public comment period of the meeting, town resident Nick Howard spoke highly of the company’s chief.