The day after Halloween, a nightmare came true in the Mountain Area.
Plagued with sleepless nights since the fall of 2008 over the financial solvency of the Met Cinema, owners Ray and Irma Martinez regretfully closed the Oakhurst movie theater on Nov. 1 -- a decision that hit them and area residents unexpectedly.
"The word we're using is grieving," Ray said. "Just thank you community, and we're sorry."
After the Martinezes spoke with their lawyer last week about their hopes of at least pushing through to the holiday season, they were advised that wouldn't be possible. Close the doors tomorrow, or go under, he told them.
"Had we put it out there and said, 'We're about to close,' people would have showed up and maybe made a two month effort, but we couldn't have made a permanent change (to make things better)," Ray said.
The cost of running the business had become astronomical for the couple: a monthly rent of $18,500, utility bills in the thousands, and some money still owed to previous owners Rusty and Sara Murphy, who operated the Met until they sold it to the Martinezes in May of 2008.
About 75% of ticket sales went back to movie studios, and their concession sales were also down -- where they make most of their money, the Martinezes said.
Some studios also require a $5,000 to $10,000 payment for popular movies before they are even shown, and if ticket sales end up accounting for less than the credit, theaters don't get the money back, they said.
"Some months were bad, some were good, but you never thought it would come to this," said Patty Alvarado, whose worked at the Met for nine years in cleaning and concessions.
"I think the economy affected the attendance tremendously," said Jean Clarke, whose worked in tickets and concessions for 10 years at the Met. "It's just sad ... it's going to hurt the community, not just in terms of entertainment. When people go to see a movie, they usually go shopping and go eat out too, and now they'll go to Fresno to do that."
The theater's seven employees received severance pay after they were told Nov. 1 that the Met was now closed.
Ray works as a Cal Fire firefighter in Fresno County and Irma ran a Fresno day care before taking over operation of the Met. The Oakhurst couple also has seven children -- six living at home, four of them adopted, three with special needs, and two with serious special needs that require frequent hospital visits.
Another challenge was the "age of digital" looming before them.
With many studios switching to digital distribution, the Met still played traditional film on old projectors. To upgrade to a digital system, it would cost between $40,000 and $70,000 for each of the Met's five screens, Ray said.
"Thousands of independent movie theaters have closed over the last few decades," reported the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in a 2005 article. "Many of the historic theaters built before 1950 have been demolished or converted to other uses, says Kennedy Smith, executive director of the League of Historic American Theaters. She estimates that there are only a few hundred independent movie theaters left and only a portion of those show first-run films. The top ten chains account for nearly one-third of all theaters and more than half of the total number of screens."
Yet while small theaters may be shutting down, the number of movie screens nationwide has risen significantly -- from about 20,600 screens in 1987 to 38,974 screens last year, reported the National Association of Theatre Owners.
"(Our business got) a lot smaller the farther along we went, and independent anything is becoming a way of the past now, it's sad," said former Met owner Sara Murphy. "I think it's tough for everyone all over the country, and the past couple years with the way the economic climate has been, it's been worse. The big guys are taking over, but there's still people out there fighting, so good for them."
The Met Cinema opened March 20, 1986 and was the recipient of the chamber's Business of the Year award in 1987.
"I don't have anything negative to say about anything, just that it's sad," Sara added about its closing.
"It is always a sad occurrence when a locally owned and independent business closes their doors in our community," said Darin J. Soukup, executive director of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. "The Met Cinema's presence will definitely be missed by our residents and our community. Not only was the Met Cinema an entertainment center for Eastern Madera County, but Ray and Irma were such strong supporters of local events and graciously allowed their venue to be used for fundraising by many service organizations."