Smoky Mountain Cinema will reopen in the Waynesville Plaza on Tuesday, bringing back a full-size theater to Haywood County after a five-year hiatus.
The old theater saw a total renovation, and a team of employees were furiously scrubbing away months of construction debris this week in preparation for the big day. For many of them, Smoky Mountain Cinema was the theater of their childhood.
“It is really nostalgic to be working here,” said Sam Beaulieu, a rising senior at Haywood Early College who was power washing theater seats.
The next few days will be a race against the clock to reach the finish line of opening day by Tuesday, coinciding with release day for the new Spider-Man movie Far From Home.
Greg Israel, the owner of Smoky Mountain Cinema, seemed oddly unphased by the din of shop vacs, the bare plywood on the front of the concession counter, the stack of monitors for displaying showtimes yet to be hung or the impending visit from the fire marshal.
Israel’s been here before, having opened 12 theaters during his movie industry career.
“This is nothing,” he said, standing beside a pile of scrap lumber and power tools. Especially considering the shape the building was in just three months ago.
The theater had been in a slow state of decline for more than a decade before closing for good five years ago. Time had taken its toll, to say the least.
“We had to throw out the old seats, tear out all the curtains and all the screens, the concession stand had to go, the ceiling came down, the carpet had to come up — it all had to be redone top to bottom,” Israel said. “It was literally just concrete and block.”
Work didn’t begin in earnest until March, and it’s been a non-stop whirlwind since then.
“You have an idea of what order you want to do it in, but the checklist kind of goes out the window,” Israel said.
Finding someone willing to resurrect the theater was a long shot. Most had given up hope that Waynesville would ever have a full-size movie theater again, and The Strand in downtown Waynesville had stepped up to fill the void by offering first-run movies in their smaller, more intimate venue.
Hundreds of small towns all across America lost their local theaters when the movie industry jettisoned film reels and made the switch to digital a few years ago. Hometown theaters simply couldn’t afford to replace their old projectors with digital technology.
Between licensing fees and forking over a cut of ticket sales, small theaters have a razor thin operating margin as it is.
But Israel believed Haywood County could support a full-size theater, and took on the Herculean effort to renovate Smoky Mountain Cinema with all new screens and sound, projectors, seats, curtains, carpets and even a new roof.
It will take Israel years to recoup his huge investment — a large capacity, high-quality popcorn maker runs $15,000 alone.
Luckily, he has a 15-year lease, and a favorable one at that. The building owner, James Clayton, cut Israel a deal to help make the theater a reality. It was a win-win, since the theater will help reinvigorate Waynesville Plaza.
When Clayton inherited a portion of the shopping center from his grandmother, Carolyn Clayton, a couple of years ago, bringing back the theater was goal number one for Clayton. It didn’t look promising until Israel cold-called him. It was just the anchor tenant Clayton was looking for.
“There is not much you can do with old movie theaters because of the sloped floors. It was either let it crumble, tear it down or try to redo it,” Israel said.
Smoky Mountain Cinema has three auditoriums: a 54-seater, an 86-seater and 200-seater.
“It’s all brand new. All new screens, all new sound, all new curtains,” Israel said.
Israel went with state-of-the-art 7.1 Dolby surround audio even in the smaller theaters, making for incredibly rich sound.
“This may be my favorite theater to watch a movie in because the sound is so tremendous,” Israel said, firing up a movie in the smallest auditorium.
To get the popcorn maker tuned up, Israel spent four hours popping and tasting one day this week.
“I want to give people the best popcorn I can,” Israel said. “There’s a sweet spot. To find that was a pain but I think we’ve got it.”
They had so much popcorn, however, they bagged it up between batches and delivered boxes to the shops in Waynesville Plaza.
“I kind of felt like a Boy Scout,” said Aubrey Woody, the general manager for Smoky Mountain Cinema.
Woody is definitely feeling the pressure in the lead-up to opening day.
“It’s good pressure though because this was a place people loved before, so we feel the responsibility of bringing back what they loved,” Woody said.
Israel couldn’t have done it without his right-hand man, Warren Moody, the owner of Blue Ridge Maintenance.
The WNC-based company is a major player in the niche movie theater industry, servicing more than 75 theaters in a five-state area.
“Zipties?” Moody asked, wheeling through the lobby.
“Haven’t seen any,” Israel said, casting a sideways glance at a pile of drill bits strewn across his desk.
Israel has hired a team of 12 employees, following an overwhelming response to a job posting on the theater’s Facebook page.
“Every time an application came, it would beep on my phone. It just blew up,” Israel said. After getting 130 applications in four days, he took the post down.
Brothers Riley and Sam Beulieu high-tailed to the theater the first day they saw the post.
“The atmosphere of a theater is happy and inviting. And it always smells like popcorn, which is a huge plus,” Riley said.
For Sydney Lyles, a recent Pisgah grad, getting a job at the movie theater of her youth is exciting. But she regrets not having a full-sized theater to go to with her friends during her high school years.
“It would have been nice to have a place to go in Waynesville rather than having to go all the way to Asheville,” said Lyles. “So you had to wait until you could drive, and even then it was a while before my mom would let me drive to Asheville by myself.”
Sense of community
Israel wanted to make ticket prices lower than the going rate at Asheville theaters.
“This is a smaller community and I’m trying to make sure people can get to the movies,” he said.
Tickets will be $9.50 for adults; $7.50 for kids ages 3 to 11 and seniors over 60; and matinees for $7.50. Every Tuesday is special day, with $5 tickets and a $5 small popcorn and small drink combo.
During the summer, Smoky Mountain Cinema will do a $1 showing of a kids movie at 10 a.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, featuring older movies like Goosebumps, Hotel Transylvania II and Smurfs II on this summer’s docket.
Despite being second-run movies, the theater still has to pay for screening rights.
“We might lose money on it, but that’s OK,” Israel said of the summer kids program. “The whole point of it is to provide something for kids to do.”
As work on the theater has progressed, a constant stream of curious onlookers have stopped by to poke their heads in the door.
“They all wanted to know ‘when are you going to open?’ ‘When are you going to open?’ ‘When are you going to open?’” said Moody.
Israel puts whatever he’s doing on pause and offers to give them a tour, even flipping on the projector and sound system. Sometimes it’s been as many as five day, but Israel goes out of his way to accommodate the curious locals.
“It’s just the right thing to do. Too many times, things get lost in the shuffle,” said Israel.
Israel spent years in the corporate movie industry. He got his start as an usher in high school, working his way up to general manager for AMC and Carmike theaters in Asheville, before going independent. Now out on his own, he relishes being part of a local community.
“In the corporate world, you can’t always do what you want to do. Here, I can do what I want to do,” Israel said.