Massachusetts movie theater offers free admission

Karen Brown Mar 23, 2012

Stacey Vanek Smith: The big movie news this weekend is ‘Hunger Games,’ based on a series of young adult books about a post-apocalyptic civilization that stages gladiator style tournaments. Word is, ‘Hunger Games’ could take in as much as $140 million this weekend — but movies like ‘Hunger Games’ are the exception. Since home entertainment has gotten so cheap and convenient theaters are having a harder time competing. So one Massachusetts theater is trying to lure movie-goers with free screenings.

From WFCR, Karen Brown reports.

Tom Doherty: Well, this is the second of our four superhero movies today.

Karen Brown: Last fall, Tom Doherty and his wife Kristen Davis renovated a downtown storefront in their small town.

Doherty: OK, I’m going to get the movie started.

They installed 20 black padded chairs and a movie screen, and took a chance on an unusual business model: Customers pay nothing to see the movie — they pay only for food, beer and wine from a bar menu.

Kristen Davis: When you’re ready to order, place your light on the table.

Cinemas do make the bulk of their money from concessions — but to not sell tickets at all?

Davis: One of the reasons we went with a free movie theater is to do something for the community. If we sold tickets, it keeps a lot of people out that couldn’t normally afford to come.

They call the place Popcorn Noir. Expenses are low, Davis says, because they don’t show first-run films.

Davis: We have some great classic comedies coming up. A couple of sci-fis.

The theater’s licensing fee to show movies is cheap — with one odd stipulation. The theater can’t advertise the titles, so Doherty says he gives cryptic plot hints on their weekly schedule.

Doherty: So we just need to say, come see an exciting adventure movie with a guy who wears a rope around his belt, and maybe show an image of the ball rolling.

That’s enough to lure customers Megan Tady and Alex Bartlett. Before they discovered Popcorn Noir, they tried to save money by streaming movies online at home.

Megan Tady: Which is really annoying because there’s never any good movies on.

Alex Bartlett: Plus we hate watching the computer. We’re psyched to see a screen.

And to watch movies with other people. Popcorn Noir sells out regularly. But Tom Doherty says customers are still confused by the business model.

Doherty: A lot of people come in and say, ‘how are you going to survive?’ But I think if we can get a good crowd for every show, and people buy something, we’ll do fine.

If things keep going well, he hopes to open a second location.

In Easthampton, Mass., I’m Karen Brown for Marketplace.

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