GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — When Phoenix Theatres owner Cory Jacobson signed on to take over the Woodland Mall theater, he had his work cut out for him.
“The roof was like Swiss cheese. I mean, you had leaks in every single room, you had mold in this building that was unthinkable we’ve,” he said. “We’ve replaced truckloads of drywall in this building to get it cleaned back up again and to restore it to what it was.”
Despite the theater’s state of disrepair, Jacobson was so confident he wanted to make West Michigan his next destination, he started ordering equipment weeks before signing the lease in June.
“We really got pretty aggressive about moving forward with this project really at a point when a lot of people were just emerging from the pandemic, so we got the last of a lot of things that were on the shelf in the United States,” Jacobson said.
BUILDING A ‘SHOWSTOPPER’ EXPERIENCE
Since June, crews have replaced the theater’s roof, ceiling tiles, changed out wallpaper, painted and installed a new concessions area and carpeting.
“This is a lot like ‘This Old House’ if you remember that TV show, on a grand scale,” Jacobson said of the renovations and upgrades.
Phoenix Theatres at Woodland will contain 14 auditoriums all featuring a Christie 4K digital projection system, heated reclining seats and black carpeting. Four rooms are equipped with an immersive Dolby Atmos sound system and chairs containing two “butt kickers” that transmit low-frequency sound through your seat.
“So any time you have like a really low roar or a boom inside of an action movie, you’ll feel this subwoofer moving inside your seat,” said theater general manager Jordan Hohman. “It’s just a nice kind of subtle touch that sort of further immerses you into the moviegoing experience.”
Outside, workers painted the exterior red brick white and blue, added LEDs and installed new signage.
“The building, I think, really pops now,” Jacobson said.
A local contractor is also refurbishing the theater sign, adding new neon, fresh paint and lightbulbs within the letters to mimic the art deco style of Chicago theaters.
“(It’s) something you’d really honestly see in the ‘20s. We were trying to capture that look,” Jacobson said. “It should be a showstopper.”
Phoenix Theatres keeps the building’s classic movie theater elements while adding modern amenities. The company plans to tie it all together with a collection of items paying homage to the Grand Rapids area moviegoing experience, which will hang in the hallways.
Gone are the lobby ticket counters. Instead, they’ll become movie poster display areas and drink refill stations.
The movie theater’s former arcade room is being transformed into an upscale lounge area complete with a grand piano from West Michigan Piano that will automatically play music.
“We have expensive tastes,” Jacobson said, earning a chuckle from Hohman.
The new concessions area will serve traditional movie-going drinks and snacks, including nachos, popcorn, candy and pop.
Phoenix Theatres is working on obtaining a liquor license. Each location typically offers canned beer, but Hohman and Jacobson plan to add something new to the Woodland Mall site: a countertop wine dispenser.
Jacobson and Hohman say their vision for the space is constantly evolving.
“The two of us are dangerous because we walk around and say, ‘You know what, that’s a really cool idea. We should go and try that,” said Jacobson.
Despite the changes, Hohman says the project remains within its budget of roughly $4 million.
The new Phoenix Theatres location marks a few milestones, including West Michigan’s first Dolby Atmos theater sound system.
“If you want to experience Dolby Atmos, you have to drive to Detroit. And I thought it was really, really the coolest experience that you can get,” said Jacobson.
The Woodland Mall location also holds Phoenix Theatres’ 50th movie screen.
“Which was very significant to me personally because I always thought you would’ve arrived when you have 50 theater screens,” Jacobson said. “I’m really glad that with all the other things going on in our world, that we were able to pull this off as well as we’ve had.”
This is also Phoenix Theatre’s first experience converting a theater with stadium platform seating.
“We’re usually done by now, but these stadium platforms really complicate the process for us,” said Jordan Hohman, general manager of Phoenix Theatres at Woodland Mall. “There’s a lot more infrastructure that needs to go in place to make that work.”
Renovation challenges and building material shortages delayed the theater’s fall opening. The new target date is early spring.
“We’d love to open for ‘Batman,’” said Hohman.
The business will be open daily from about 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., according to Hohman.
While Phoenix Theaters hasn’t settled on ticket prices for its new location, Jacobson says they plan to be affordable enough that families can visit several times a month.
“Usually, it’s about 20-30% less than what you would expect going to our competitive theaters,” Jacobson said.
Once Phoenix Theatres opens, customers can find coupons and order their tickets on the theater website. Until then, they can enter a contest to win free movie passes for a year and see the construction progress at https://phoenixmovies.net/.
‘A TIME TO STRIKE’: OPPORTUNITY IN A PANDEMIC
Phoenix Theatres is the third company to bring movies to Woodland Mall.
Celebration Cinema moved out in May 2020, citing an expensive lease and operating losses for much of its 13 years in business. Celebration Cinema’s predecessor, Cinemark, also struggled to remain viable at the mall.
Jacobson thinks his theater won’t go the same way as the past two businesses because the market has significantly changed thanks to the mall’s $100 million upgrade and upscale retailers moving into the area. Von Maur opened in October 2019, followed by The Cheesecake Factory a month later. Whole Foods is also under construction nearby.
“I think that all of these retailers have recognized the fact that this is a very, very key market and a great location. And I think that has radically changed in the last 25 years,” Jacobson said.
While some may think expanding during a pandemic is a mistake, Phoenix Theatres sees it as an opportunity.
“Sure, it’s risky to open a theater when you have all of these variables, and everything is so volatile. However, if you can pull it off, I think that you’re in a position ahead of the rest of your competition,” Hohman said.
“If the pandemic hadn’t occurred, we might not be able to have this wonderful opportunity here,” Jacobson said. “And I think that… that is the time to strike.”
While the at-home movie streaming industry may be a perceived threat for some people, Jacobson views it as a new chapter in the secondary market once dominated by movie rental stores — a market that’s needed to grow film studio revenue, which will then pump out more movies.
Jacobson says simultaneous movie releases at home and in theaters “was a necessity of the pandemic” that will soon end since studios realized how easily people can copy and share movies.
“All of the studios right now have come out and declared that that will end as of the first of the year of 2022,” he said.
But the ties between theaters and Netflix and Amazon that grew during the pandemic will remain. Phoenix Theaters says it’s showing three Netflix films in December, with a couple of Amazon movies expected in theaters as well.
“I think that’s kind of exciting because… now we’re getting more product than less. And it’s just a time of a lot of experimentation. I don’t think we should be frightened by that. I think we should embrace it,” Jacobson said.
FROM POPCORN POPPER TO PROFESSIONAL
Jacobson, a self-described “old film guy,” has more than 40 years of experience to back up his perspectives.
His passion for the industry started at 14 years old, popping popcorn at his local theater once a week.
“It really inspired me to want to be in the movie theater business… I really like the presentation of it,” he said.
Jacobson says he worked for two major theater circuits before starting his own company in Michigan 21 years ago. Phoenix Theaters had grown to five theaters and 350 employees in three states when the pandemic hit and temporarily shut down operations.
“It’s been a rough, rough, rough 20 months of dealing with all sorts of unknowns,” Jacobson said.
But he credits his experienced, “nimble” staff for keeping the company running, “and I think it’s really going to pay off between now and the end of the year,” he said.
Demand is rebuilding, according to Jacobson. In January, company leaders predicted that in this last fiscal quarter, Phoenix Theatres would grow to 70% or more of the business it had during the same time in 2019.
“And I’m happy to report that in October, we actually exceeded overall revenues than we had in October 2019. So we are really ahead of the game right now in terms of getting our business back on track,” Jacobson said.
Once the holiday season passes, Phoenix Theatres plans to grow its workforce. The company expects to hire 75-100 employees to start at its Woodland Mall location, potentially picking up workers who served as seasonal help for retailers.
“We’ve had a pretty rough time of it in the last 20 months. However, in the grand scheme of life, things just continually seem to get better over time. And I think that it’s our obligation: To make sure that we’re part of making it better, not making it worse,” said Jacobson. “If we can get in here right now and redevelop a space that the community is going to enjoy… we’ll get past this. It’s just a matter of history.”