OCEAN CITY — Projection rooms at the new Moorlyn Family Theatre looked empty except for the few remaining — and almost obsolete — film projectors. Soon, they too would be scrapped and exchanged for digital projectors as part of the theater’s revival.
The Moorlyn and the nearby Strand 5 theater on the city’s Boardwalk will reopen Memorial Day weekend after an estimated $800,000 in repairs, renovations and upgrades. The restoration of the two mutliplexes is a rare project to preserve cinema at the shore, where movie theaters have largely become a thing of the past as companies face the costs of modernizing.
“It’s an investment in the community,” said Seth Bazacas, artistic director and manager of both the Moorlyn and the Strand.
Frank Theatres, which once owned about 21 small theaters along the New Jersey coast, sold the two remaining Ocean City theaters in October to a group of local investors. The company’s only remaining seashore theater is its Harbor 5 property in Stone Harbor.
“That’s just because nobody’s bought it yet,” said Bruce Frank, president and CEO of the parent corporation, Frank Entertainment Companies, based in Jupiter, Fla.
Frank said the company used to own small movie houses in Asbury Park, Beach Haven, Long Beach Township, Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate, Ocean City, Wildwood, Cape May and other towns, all of which were sold and later closed. He said there is simply more money to be made with larger multiplexes inland that operate year-round. The small, seasonal, coastal cinemas mainly attract patrons on rainy days.
As evidence, Frank’s company is expanding and upgrading its theaters in Egg Harbor Township and Northfield as part of a nationwide expansion. New facilities are being built in Deptford and Princeton that combine movie screens, bowling lanes and restaurants.
The company is spending more than $375,000 at its Stone Harbor theater to replace film projectors with digital projectors, which will be ready for Memorial Day. But Frank said he does not expect to build a theater in a shore community again.
In fact, he made the argument that bigger, more modern theaters only a few miles from the beach better serve the needs of visitors anyway.
“The experience for seashore guests is going to be so much greater than ever before,” he said.
Not everyone feels that way, whether for reasons of nostalgia, historic preservation or belief in the value of small theaters. For instance, there was a determined group of locals that tried to save the Beach Theatre in Cape May, a former Frank property, before it was demolished in 2011.
The Sea Theater in Wildwood, the last functioning cinema on the island, is for sale. But owner Taras Penkalskyj, of Philadelphia, said he only wants to sell to someone who would maintain it as a theater.
“I just don’t want to see it be an apartment building or a snack shop or anything,” he said of the single-screen, 70-seat facility.
Investors in Ocean City did not want to see the island’s only remaining theaters disappear, so they purchased both from Frank last year. The Moorlyn is now owned by The Tabernacle religious nonprofit group, and The Strand is owned by an investment group named OC Bwalk Holdings LLC.
“We don’t want this to be knocked down and become condos or anything,” said Bazacas, of New York City, who will live in Ocean City this summer.
Bazacas said The Strand will reopen with two screens outfitted with digital projectors. The other three screening rooms were flooded by Hurricane Sandy and will not reopen this summer.
The Moorlyn received less damage. It had some leaks in the roof, and some ceiling tiles had to be replaced, but its four screens will be operational.
Converting to digital projection was the primary cost of the renovations, which Bazacas said totaled nearly $400,000 for the two properties alone. That meant buying the digital projectors, which can cost about $75,000 each, and rewiring the entire system.
Expenses also included the remodeling and cleaning of both facilities, installation of new heating and cooling equipment, and the addition of a stage for live shows — such as concerts, plays, comedians and magicians — in one of The Moorlyn’s auditoriums. Bazacas estimated all that work cost at least $400,000 more.
The Strand will continue to show first-run, popular movies, opening with “The Great Gatsby” and “The Hangover Part III.” The Moorlyn, however, will show strictly family-friendly content, reflecting the addition of “Family” to its marquee.
“I pick content over box office,” Bazacas said.
That means most movies will be rated G and PG, although there will be some room for PG-13 if it is appropriate for young children and is not gratuitous in bad language, violence or adult themes.
“We’re not trying to whitewash art,” Bazacas said. “Sometimes, to reveal the light there has to be darkness.”
The Moorlyn will open showing “Home Run,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Iron Man 3,” “Epic” and various “VeggieTales” films.
Live shows will begin in June, and the first major concert, “Oh What A Night!” a tribute to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, will be on July 1.
Workers installed new lights by the stage as Bazacas gave a tour of The Moorlyn, pointing out some of the relics that remain inside. The large metallic projectors had yet to be removed, as well as the tables where film was cut and spliced together.
Most of the space in the projection rooms was once taken up by stacks upon stacks of film reels. With digital projectors, movies are delivered on hard-drives or downloaded, making delivery of films much less expensive, even though the conversion itself was costly.
Many theaters around the country have balked at that cost and decided to close, not knowing how long they would be around to see a return on their investment. With fewer and fewer new movies being released on film now, they would otherwise be limited to reruns.
“If you can’t meet the cost of digital, you die out,” Bazacas said.
With the upgrades, the Moorlyn may actually expand its schedule and open year-round.
“We’ll see how this summer goes,” Bazacas said.
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