BLACKFOOT — Since 1995, the number of cinemas in the U.S. has decreased by 25 percent, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
In 1995 — the year Pixar’s first feature-length film, “Toy Story,” was released and when Netflix didn’t exist — there were 7,744 theaters and drive-ins in the U.S.
Last year, three Marvel movies made about $4 billion combined. Pixar is now owned by Disney, which also owns Marvel. Netflix has more than 139 million subscribers. And the number of cinemas was 5,803.
In the same 23-year period, the average cost of a movie ticket more than doubled, from $4.35 to $9.11, according to National Association of Theater Owners data.
Cinemas are shrinking, movies are becoming more expensive and more people are staying home to stream movies and other programs.
But a locally owned cinema company is going the opposite direction. While it’s showing the consolidated industries’ top-grossing films, tapping into the sure moneymakers from the largest distributors, its prices are low and it just opened a brand new theater in Blackfoot.
Blackfoot Movie Mill, a property of Royal Theaters, opened in November. The new seven-screen cinema is Blackfoot’s only theater, since the Plaza Twin theater closed in 2012.
“This will be a banner year,” said Kent Lott, owner of Royal Theaters, which also operates the Centre Twin and Paramount theaters in Idaho Falls.
“I feel like I’m at the airport and I’m looking out at the horizon and it’s airplane after airplane lined up, ready to land,” Lott said. “There’s a great title every two or three weekends, sometimes every weekend.”
The Marvel franchise and other family-friendly blockbusters, such as “Secret Life of Pets 2” and Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” reboot, are the moneymakers, both in ticket sales and concessions.
“The week that we picked up ‘Avengers,’ that four-day weekend we popped just over 500 pounds of popcorn seed,” Lott said. “Between our profit margin on the tickets and also on the concessions, everything seems to be working fine for us.”
With a lineup of all-ages films, Royal Theaters caters to families by selling cheap tickets, from $5 to $7, and reasonably priced concessions.
“We do not want you to feel guilty or bad about what you spend when you leave,” Lott said. “We’ve done our very best to keep our prices low. We just want families to come — that’s a big deal for us. We would rather make our money in volume than by ruining somebody.”
Lott said the industry has changed dramatically in recent years in the cost for a theater to lease movies from distributors. For example, movies used to be leased on an aggregate scale. Distributors would collect 80 percent of sales on an opening weekend, then decrease the percentages to 60, 50 or 40 percent in following weeks.
Now, they’re charging a flat rate, about 53 percent for all weeks, Lott said.
“If we’re going to play a big title long enough, it probably costs us a little more,” he said. “It’s like going to the gas station. If you want gas, this is what it costs.”
While distributors often pay more attention to larger theaters, Lott said Royal Theaters has a good relationship with film companies.
“Some of them really like to cater to the big guys,” he said. “You want to spend a bunch of time with somebody with 13 screens versus 1,000? They’re in it to make money, I get it. For the most part, we’re treated with great respect and the film companies are very good to us.”
The “big guys” almost put the Centre Twin out of business in the late 1990s. When Edwards Grand Teton in Ammon opened in 1999, the new theater took 70 percent of customers from the small theater in downtown Idaho Falls.
“Those were tough years,” Lott said.
The Lotts had to open an advertising specialty business to stay afloat. When the customer base rebounded a couple years later, Lott bought the Paramount theater in Idaho Falls.
“People in the industry and out of the industry thought I was crazy — my wife probably one of them,” Lott said.
But the Paramount, which shows new movies, just out of the major theaters, at a discounted rate, has had steady success.
Now, Royal Theaters isn’t just staying afloat but is expanding and, with the new theater, hopes to compete with larger theaters, such as AMC Classic at the Pine Ridge Mall in Chubbuck and Edwards Grand Teton.
Blackfoot Movie Mill is not just a theater for Blackfoot residents; it’s meant to attract families from Rexburg to American Falls, who want a cheaper movie-going experience than they can get at the larger theaters.
To broaden Blackfoot Movie Mill’s appeal, Royal Theaters invested in technology, such as top-of-the-line laser projectors, first adopted by the large chains a few years ago. The laser is a step up from light-bulb projectors, which replaced film many years ago. The laser projectors provide a sharper, crisper image, Lott said.
“The new lasers are really like going from a ’50s suspension in a car to a new car,” Lott said. “It’s that dramatic, the laser technology.”
Royal Theaters bought the Blackfoot building in 2017. After a year of construction on the building, a former creamery built in 1890, the theater opened with five screens in November.
Last month, the theater expanded to seven screens, the largest of which seats 190 people.
The theater is decorated with rustic accents, made of wood from the building’s original foundation. The marquee is second hand. One wall is decorated with movie-related knickknacks found at a nearby garage sale.
The repurposing of the building, rather than building from scratch, helped keep costs low.
“The key for us is we’re 45 percent into what a new building would cost,” Lott said.
Royal Theaters is a family business. Lott’s son, Brandon, manages all three theaters, and his other son, Tyler, works at the Centre Twin.
Lott grew up on a farm in Ucon. While he was drawn to farming, an even stronger affection for film projectors — he would run the projectors in school and at home — drew him to the movie business.
Today, he’s combined the two ideas.
“I always wanted to farm because I wanted that feeling that we could all work together as a family,” he said. “This has done all those things that farming could’ve done for our family. We all work together, sweat together, laugh together — we do all those things.”