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Movie Theater Owner

If you're passionate about films and don't mind having your income tied to the latest blockbuster release, then owning a theater may be the right profession for you.

Being the owner of an independent movie house or drive-in means being an entrepreneur. That's according to Dan Wannemacher, owner of a drive-in. He says that people interested in owning a theater need many of the traits that any small business owner requires. That includes common sense, a sense of humor and the ability to handle high stress and risk.

Todd Leach owns a theater in Iowa. He says that an interest in film technology is also important. Plus, he says, mechanical and electronic ability helps. Owners must also be service-oriented.

"You don't get bored," says Leach. Owners phone distributors. They book and publicize movies. They ready films for viewing. They also clean the theater, manage the concessions and constantly deal with finances.

It's often not a pretty picture, though. Many theaters are on the verge of closing. Even many of the big corporate chains have filed for bankruptcy.

But industry experts are hoping that these closings will make for healthier competition.

As for salary, Leach says that income depends entirely on the theater size and the number of screens.

Starting a theater takes money. You need to buy or build a facility and pay for equipment and supplies. A theater's size and location will influence the cost. Wannemacher says many independent theaters are located in smaller cities and towns, or they cater to specific interests. Drive-ins are usually found on city outskirts.

Wannemacher got his start as a hobby. He bought an indoor theater in a quaint town and ended up losing money. He eventually sold it and rented the drive-in he now owns. By also running the nearby go-cart track, he was able to establish a viable business.

The go-carts, Wannemacher admits, are what pay the bills. "If it wasn't for go-carts, [this town] wouldn't have a drive-in," he says.

Wannemacher also sells candy and popcorn. These concessions offset the money he loses showing movies. "I don't allow outside food," he says. "I have to do that to keep the screens running."

For drive-ins, he says, the wild card is weather. In colder climates, drive-ins make their money during the summer months. That means about 60 to 70 prime days. Rain-free weekend evenings are key to success.

Despite the challenges, Wannemacher feels the drive-in is an essential part of his business. "Drive-ins carry a nostalgia factor," he says. "Baby boomers have fond memories of their own childhoods."

And now they're bringing their kids. Drive-in tickets are less expensive than taking a whole family to an indoor theater. That's because you pay by the car and can see two movies in one night.

When Wannemacher owned the indoor theater, he found it extremely difficult to compete with the multiplexes. "You have to go niche," he says.

He says that it's hard for independent theaters to get distribution rights to first-run movies. The multiplexes often have deals with movie studios. These allow them exclusive rights to films. Therefore, many independents show indie, art, foreign or second-run movies.

Drive-ins, Wannemacher notes, don't have the same problem. Distributors consider them a different market. So he's able to show blockbuster features that draw audiences. "You know," he laughs, "the first film I screened was in 1995. It was a little movie called Jurassic Park." That success helped build his drive-in business.

Tom Kiefaber owns a historic theater in Baltimore. His family built it in 1939 when they owned 40 theaters there. It's now the only one left, and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It receives a lot of coverage from national media reporting on Kiefaber's struggle to survive.

"Owning this theater is an enormous sacrifice and I'm just about at death's door," he says. He is trying to stay afloat amid constant competition from multiplexes.

So why does he stay in the industry? "It's a form of obsession," he explains. "There's no going back for me. I have to justify these sacrifices and be successful."

Leach has found running a theater to be enjoyable. For the last six years, it has just been a part-time job. But next year, he plans on making it his main source of income.

He has noticed that getting first-run movies has become easier. "I don't get them on opening night," he says. "But I do get them within a few weeks, while they still have a lot of juice left."

Owning a movie theater is hard work and not always profitable. But some good signs may be ahead for theater owners.

Jim Kozak is the communications director of the National Association of Theater Owners. He notes that the number of teenagers is increasing. And teens buy the most movie tickets. That could have a positive effect on box office numbers.

One way to increase profits is to show advertising before the film, says an article on CNN's website. It also suggests turning nights at the theater into dining experiences, complete with table service.

Wannemacher's advice is: "Make sure you have several screens." The more screens, the more films that can be shown -- and the more tickets that can be sold. More screens also allow owners to hide flops, while at the same time bringing in new movies that make more money.

Kiefaber sees hope for the future. "Many of the big chains that have gone bankrupt have been bought by mega-rich people. We're hoping these people are more visionary when it comes to the multipurpose aspects of theaters." He adds that independent theaters could make it if they were guaranteed access to first-run films.

Kiefaber has also noticed that historic theaters are reopening. Nonprofit and community-based groups are taking over new and old movie houses. "So, while I wouldn't recommend this profession to young people," he says, "I would say that they should keep an eye on this movement and for opportunities to operate or to be a part of operations."

Being a movie theater owner is not for everyone. But it can be a great career for those who are passionate about films and dedicated to their business. Leach's final piece of advice: "You're not going to get rich. You just have to love it."


National Association of Theater Owners
This organization represents movie theater owners in the U.S. and more than 20 countries

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