Blockbuster Renovations Tell Story at Salem Cinema

SALEM, Ohio – On a particularly busy Monday afternoon, the management at Salem Twin Cinema was less concerned about the 30 people in the seats and more concerned about the gap in movies at the end of July.

“If we still have that gap, I’d like to run ‘Terminator’ that weekend,” said owner Jock Buta. “That’d probably be a good one to have here.”

But manager Alex Grist had other another idea.

“Well, that’ll be around the same time ‘Pixels’ comes out, which should bring in kids. Plus, ‘Magic Mike 2’ will be out that weekend,” he said. “That’ll bring in the same crowd as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and that was a packed weekend.”

Now that he has to be more concerned about which movies will draw larger audiences to fill the seats in his theater, Buta, who is vice president of Butech Bliss in Salem, sees the cinema differently.

“It’s funny. I go to the theater less now that I own the theater,” he said.

Six months ago, he reopened the theater after a six-month renovation that upgraded the sound system, switched the projectors to digital from film, rebuilt the concessions stand, painted the walls, replaced the carpet, added VIP rooms and installed all-new leather seating.

Buta wouldn’t say how much the renovations cost. “It was quite a bit,” he allowed.

The best upgrade, Grist said, is the seats. Those in the front row recline and the back halves of the two auditoriums are filled with vibrating chairs.

“We showed ‘Jurassic Park’ a couple weeks ago and in the scene where the T. Rex walks up and you see the water shake. You could actually feel it,” he said. “It was probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a movie.”

The former projector rooms were turned into soundproof VIP rooms that seat six. The $100 fee covers six tickets for the movie plus unlimited drinks and popcorn. Making it all better is a button in the room that when pushed signals employees in the concession stand to furnish refills.

“It’s better for some movies than others,” Grist said. “But there have been a few where they’re full for every showing.”

The Salem Twin Cinema, built in the 1970s, is where Grist got his start in the movie theater business when he was 17. Over the years, he’s worked at several other theaters, most of them part of chains such as Cinemark. Working at an independent theater is a fairly big difference, Grist noted.

“Those theaters are more about business, where this is more about community and creating a unity through movies,” he explained.

The concession stand is where the difference is most evident. A box of candy tops out around $3.50 and popcorn at $5.

“We’re not here to just to turn a profit,” Grist said. “This is a community theater and we try to get people here who don’t go see movies all the time. We’d rather have them come out than turn a huge profit.”

Another major difference is that he and Buta get to choose what films will be shown rather than movies a corporate office chooses. Right now, because of how recently the cinema reopened, production companies are sending mostly blockbuster movies to fill the two screens.

Eventually, Grist would like to add a few one-time screenings of movies.

“Since we’re just starting up our business, so we don’t have that relationship with studios just yet,” he said. “You need to have a special rapport to get a movie for one screening on a weeknight. We’d like to branch out eventually, but we need to build up the business first.”

Since opening last year, attendance has steadily increased, Buta said, the result in part of the upgrades and Salem residents no longer having to drive to the Youngstown area to see a movie.

“Despite Netflix and streaming services, there’s still a thrill when you see a movie for the first time on the big screen,” he said. “Attendance figures show that it’s popular. I’m sure they’re great compared to the final numbers before it closed, but they keep on growing.”

A lifelong patron of the cinema until it closed a few years ago, Buta said he bought the theater because of other businesses popping up along State Street.

“This is about creating a destination that couples with some new restaurants and other developments in Salem,” he said.

Pictured: Renovations to the Salem Twin Cinema were essential to steadily improve attendance at the theater, say owner Jock Buta and manager Alex Grist.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.