Oakhurst friends pursue subscriptions to save cinema

The Met Cinema was built in Oakhurst in 1986The Met Cinema was built in Oakhurst in 1986The fledgling business idea of three high school friends may one day change the way movie theaters operate around the country. But first, they have to prove it works in the mountain town of Oakhurst where a 30-year-old jewel of the community now hangs in the balance.

Built in 1986 just a few years after the town’s Raley’s opened in the same shopping center, the Met Cinema remained the only movie theater in eastern Madera County until just last month when financial burdens finally forced its closure.

For current owners Ray and Irma Martinez, the situation seemed hopeless for the five-screen theater with more than $16,000 in monthly rent and little attendance to satisfy it.

Now, a glimmer of hope is in the works as three former Yosemite High School classmates are calling on the mountain area to help save the establishment through a membership plan that allows audiences to watch unlimited movies for a month.

Seeking around 3,000 people, or roughly 15 to 20 percent of the mountain community to sign up, entrepreneurs Keith Walker, James Nelson and Matt Sconce have until Dec. 31 to reach the quota in order to pay the capital costs and keep their childhood gem alive. As of Dec. 17, there were 1,800 signed up.

“Every day the building sits empty the landlords aren’t getting anything from it. They’re just waiting,” said Matt Sconce, a filmmaker from North Fork whose first film Stricken premiered at the Met two years ago. “So they’re giving us a month to try this idea, so with the agreement that this idea does work, they’ll allow the startup model.”

Modeled after the theater subscription service Movie Pass, the Movie Heroes plan will allow individual members access to the theater for $19.95 per month and couples for $34.95. Family plans start out at $34.95 for two with an additional $15 for each adult after that and $12 for children.

Members, who can sign up at www.savethemet.com, will also be able to invite guests to screenings for $7 while all other visitors may pay $16 as an all-day fee.

With around 12 movies playing at the theater each month, Sconce said the monthly fee pays for itself in just a few outings and encourages greater attendance.

“This model as it’s slow rolled out can actually save a lot of the theaters,” he said. “It balances out pretty well and it creates consistent income stream for the Met to upgrade its sound and other things.”

In fact, he added, generating the $35,000 to $40,000 per month in operating costs were only a part of the reason why the partners formed their own corporation, dubbed Met Heroes.

If successful starting up, Sconce said the three hope to see through other improvements like new carpeting and seats, better sound and concessions, replacing faulty wiring and investing in digital projectors to stay current when 20th Century Fox stops releasing movies on 35mm film.

“It’s around $70,000 per screen for digital upgrade, but I think we would lease the system or maybe do a payment on the system,” he said.

Further out, the vision also includes a reservation system and a service that allows audience members to order snacks and beverages that can be brought directly to their seats as the film rolls.

The plan also provides the freedom to schedule new releases in one theater while screening independent, local or even classic films in another or even hosting Halo tournaments and other crowd-pleasing events.

Although starting out as a means to reopen and operate, Sconce said the partnership may eventually decide to buy the business.

“Right now we have people that aren’t excited about it because they think it’s a little grungy and not shiny, and we want to change all that,” he said.

In one sense, for the three who grew up together in the mountain area, the endeavor would be a continuation of the tasks they once bonded over as high school kids.

Working together in the Odyssey of the Mind program, the three-man team entered a competition with a moving robot that was eventually disqualified after judges claimed the circuitry was too advanced for anyone their age to have developed it.

Years later, the trio is attempting to defy the odds yet again only this time, they have a whole team of volunteers and well-wishing Oakhurst residents on their side.

Since announcing the initiative, many of them have taken to the streets with costumes and signs promoting the new Met Heroes membership plan that could serve as a model for the future of cinema, but importantly, revive the theater they love.

“If we don’t succeed, then there’s not going to be another theater coming to this building and that’s because the individual ticket model doesn’t work for this area,” Sconce said.

“I’ve watched movies at the Met my whole life. My first date was at the Met and now I have a four- and two-year-old and I can’t imagine not having a movie theater in the town I grew up in.”

--- This article originally appeared in the Dec. 7 print edition of The Business Journal. Don't be a week late to the news. Visit our subscription page <http://www.thebusinessjournal.com/subscriptions>  or find a newsstand <http://www.thebusinessjournal.com/subscriptions/find-newsstand>  today.