These days, megahit movies can be watched at home within weeks of their theater release, and high-tech home-delivery systems themselves appear to be gaining sophistication by the minute.
What will likely never lose its luster, though, is the thrill of going out with friends and family, seeing a highly anticipated movie on a gigantic screen with a killer surround-sound system, and enjoying an evening out in the company of dozens of others. That thrill is particularly intensified this time of year, when movie buffs are anxious to check films off their list that are strong contenders for the Academy Awards.
Keeping the movie-going experience attractive to the masses means staying in tune with the latest trends, and Brett DeNafo, Clint Bunting and Scot Kauffman – business partners whose company is called Town Square Entertainment – have been on the cutting edge of the modern movie-theater industry for years.
About five years ago, the trio sunk more than $1 million into renovating the Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor, keeping its circa-1940s Art Moderne-style veneer intact while bringing the interior into the 21st century with stadium seating, new screens and projectors, and a 7.1 Dolby surround-sound system. The adjacent Harbor Burger Bar allows patrons to take in a flick while enjoying a burger and beer in that theater as well.
So successful was the Stone Harbor undertaking, which was completed in 2016, that the partners have since tackled two similar projects – one having recently opened to much acclaim in Northfield, and the other slated for unveiling in Ventnor this spring.
The Tilton Square Theatre in Northfield is an eight-screen multiplex that had been owned by Frank Theatres since 2012. Prior to that, according to DeNafo, the Milgram family was the theater’s only other owner since its construction as a 1,000-plus-seat single screen in 1964. Max Gurwicz Enterprises bought the property in a bankruptcy sale from then owner Bruce Frank, and entered into a lease agreement with Town Square Entertainment.
“(Gurwicz) has been tremendous to work with, and really helped us to get the whole place remodeled,” DeNafo says. “Sometimes entering a partnership like that can be a nightmare, and that’s one of the reasons we were skeptical about renting from anybody. You just never know. We usually don’t rent, we buy, but this partnership has been working out great. Since we opened in April, things have been absolutely wonderful.”
It is no wonder, given what the developing partners did to the property since taking it over. The entire interior, except for the basic plumbing and wiring, has been gutted and replaced, and much of the layout reconfigured. Most notable among the changes was ripping out the seating in all eight theaters and replacing traditional theater seats with the kind of recliners any man cave would be proud to possess. Only Tilton Square’s IMAX theater – with its special effects and an audio-visual quality that makes movie-goers feel as if they are literally part of the action – was refurbished with more traditional theater seating.
“A lot of new theaters are going with recliners today because that’s what people want,” DeNafo says. “The only downside is that you decrease your seating by about 50 percent, so big blockbusters like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Frozen’ – films you know are going to sell out quickly – have to be put in multiple theaters to meet the demand.”
The IMAX parent company does not approve of recliners in its theaters, says DeNafo, which can work to Tilton’s advantage. With a seating capacity of around 1,200 in the eight theaters combined, the IMAX is easily the largest with 400 seats.
“We’re not allowed to have recliners in the IMAX, but that actually helps us allow for larger crowds,” he says. “And converting the other seven into recliners was not as simple as what people might think. It wasn’t a simple matter of taking seats out and putting recliners in.
“You’ve basically got to extend the platform for the recliners to make more room to walk around them, and you’ve got to run all new electric to each seat. The recliners were a whole other expense beyond the normal renovations. Just to outfit each theater with recliners was somewhere between $35,000 and $65,000 per theater.”
Tilton Square has in-lobby kiosks and an online service that allows guests to reserve their seats well in advance of scheduled showtimes. Tilton’s concession stand also shatters the stereotype of the typical movie theater snack bar, as guests can get hot food such as French fries, chicken fingers, gourmet pretzels and more. There is also a new self-service section where guests can top off their purchased beverages for free, add butter and flavors to their popcorn, or find condiments for their food.
“The concession stand is all brand new, every theater has brand-new 7.1 Dolby surround-sound system, all new projectors, screens – it was basically a gut-job similar to Ventnor, except at least with Tilton we had the electric and plumbing in there. Ventnor is literally going to be completely brand new from the wall studs out.”
Ventnor Square will be worth the wait
Town Square Entertainment’s renovation of what had been a longstanding eyesore in Ventnor – a property near the Atlantic City border, and essentially right on the gateway into town from A.C. – exceeded what the three partners were expecting when they first tackled it.
The former movie duplex had been called the Ventnor Twin and, like Tilton Square in Northfield, is another property involved in the Frank Theaters bankruptcy.
Ventnor Twin sat vacant for nearly 15 years and had fallen into much more of a state of disrepair than would have been realized with the naked eye, much of that damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The partners have invested more than $2 million to bring the circa-1920s theatre back to life, which they hope to have completed by April.
“(Ventnor) was a much bigger project than what we first thought,” DeNafo says. “We literally took everything down to the foundation. When I say we gutted it, I mean there was nothing left that’s original on the inside. The sides, the front and the back façades are going to be original, but everything else is new.”
Keeping the classic Art Deco design in Ventnor was more a concession made by the developers based on popular opinion than a requirement from the city’s planning-zoning board.
“Honestly, we might have been better off just tearing the whole building down and starting from scratch,” says DeNafo, 42, who grew up in Ventnor. “At least from a money standpoint it is costing us more to do it this way, but it was very important for us to keep the integrity of the building intact. It has such a great look, and I think the city of Ventnor is pleased with the way we’re going about it too. This is part of Ventnor history.”
When finished, the structure will feature a larger theater with 272 seats, and two smaller theaters with 85 each. An adjacent building was purchased and demolished to allow for more parking. The second level of Ventnor Square will house a restaurant with a liquor license, and New Orleans-style balconies will extend the length of the front façade overlooking Ventnor Avenue.