Community raises enough funds to reopen Met Cinema

More memberships needed to upgrade to digital projectors as studios stop producing film

Carmen GeorgeJanuary 10, 2013 

It was a big goal, raising 3,000 memberships in less than two months to save a movie theater in a rural town with less than 3,000 people.

Naysayers doubted it. Matt Sconce, James Nelson and Keith Walker believed it would happen.

The three longtime friends, who grew up in the Mountain Area, banded together again to save the Met Cinema in Oakhurst -- their beloved childhood theater -- shortly after its doors closed unexpectedly Nov. 1.

On New Years Eve, three and a half hours before a deadline they swung with the property's landlords, they announced they had reached their magic 3,000 membership number -- the minimum needed to cover the theater's operating costs.

The Met is tentatively set to reopen Feb. 1. The trio is now working diligently to establish contracts with film studios and clean up and refurbish the theater that originally opened March 20, 1986.

"I think it represented hope," Sconce said of all the efforts to save the Met. "I think when the community lost the theater, I think they felt kind of hopeless about the whole town. Like, 'Is this the first step to our whole demise? Are we going to lose everything that we care about, and what are our children going to have in the future?' ... We can actually change things for the better for our families, and they've proven that."

While they are overjoyed to have enough members to reopen the Met, more challenges loom ahead to keep it open.

The next big hurdle is raising enough memberships to finance an upgrade of the projectors from film to digital.

As of Jan. 1, 20th Century Fox announced they would stop producing movies in film -- switching entirely to digital -- and all other studios have said they will do the same soon, Sconce said.

New digital projectors cost between $60,000 and $75,000 -- each, he said. That means it could be as much as $375,000 or more to upgrade all five of the Met's screens to digital.

"With the 3,000 membership number, Keith, James and I aren't getting paid. It's just to keep us open with movies coming in," Sconce said. "We're barely able to cover costs with what we have now. If we get between 3,700 and 4,000 members, we'll be more comfortable with the upgrade process to digital, and if we get 5,000 members, it will be a no-brainer."

Their ultimate goal is 10,000 members.

They have a big vision for what the new Met Cinema can be -- turning it into an entertainment hub with big city film quality and a welcoming, small town atmosphere.

Along with members being able to see an estimated eight to 12 first-run, feature films each month for free, they want to stream live events such as the Super Bowl and the Oscars -- creating a red carpet affair complete with mock paparazzi -- offer birthday party packages, open an espresso bar, and host Xbox 360 video game tournaments on the big screens for cash prizes.

"Never settle -- always take it to the absolute best that we can possibly do,'" said filmmaker Sconce, also a youth leader at Sierra Pines Church in Oakhurst.

Walker also took this motto to heart and quit his software engineering job in the Bay Area last month to move back to Oakhurst and devote more time to the "Save the Met" campaign. The technological pro -- who's worked in the aerospace industry and was recruited by the CIA for his skills -- sold a car to fund the creation of Movie Heroes Inc., and then set about designing the website savethemet.com, where people can sign up for a membership, make a donation, inquire about advertising, or become a corporate sponsor.

"I remember being so excited about 'Back to the Future,' and I remember watching 'October Sky' at the Met," Walker said. "That was my favorite movie, and I went into the aerospace industry. I probably have not been fully honest with myself on how much that movie influenced my career and pursuing aerospace. So I watched a movie at the Met Cinema, and it's what I ended up doing with my life."

More than a dozen Mountain Area businesses and organizations have also made a commitment to the importance of keeping the Met alive and have partnered with the theater, including offering store discounts for Met members.

"The Save The Met campaign has been an extraordinary effort to keep an iconic Oakhurst business open," said Darin Soukup, executive director of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce. "The chamber would like to thank our chamber members, local businesses, area residents, and the Save The Met team for preserving an important source of entertainment for our mountain community."

The Met campaign and its innovative new movie membership model has also sparked a lot of media attention, including coverage by the Los Angeles Times, several Valley news stations, The Fresno Bee and Valley Public Radio.

Going forward, concession sales at the Met will continue to be crucial for its survival -- what once accounted for almost 30% of total revenue in the theater's heyday, Sconce said.

"When (former owners) Ray and Irma came in, concessions were selling for about six dollars on average per person, and in one year, it dropped in half -- and that was before the Dollar Tree," Sconce said. "Our goal is to make concessions desirable again, and affordable for people. We would like to lower costs on concessions, but if we lower costs on concessions, would that make more people want to buy them? We don't know. If people want the theater to survive, they need to buy food and not bring their own in. They are already Met heroes, they were a part of saving it, so they need to save it also by buying the food that is its life blood."

Intensive cleaning and repair work has also taken place, including steam cleaning and scrubbing seats, cleaning the carpets and concession areas, fixing broken bathroom pipes and painting. Employee hiring for a number of Met positions is also underway, Sconce said.

For those who aren't members, movie tickets will still be available.

"If someone comes in off the street who's not a member, there's a $10 non-member fee and then they can buy a $6 ticket," Sconce said. "That allows them to watch any movie that day for free, and to buy cheap tickets for others for the rest of the day -- $5.50 for matinees, $6 for children or seniors, and $7 for adults."

"We hardly ever went to Fresno until the theater closed, and we ended up spending more money. And then I found out, it wasn't as fun, because it's kind of nice to have that little small town theater," said Yosemite High School student Allie Boyer, 16, who volunteered her time last month calling residents about signing up for Met memberships. "It's kind of nice going to a theater where you walk in and see five or six people you know."

"That sense of community is nurtured by the theater and it's a central hub where you can go and have fun with other people," Sconce said. "It definitely shaped me into who I was, so I want the same for the other children of the mountain community."

Boyer added that the theater also helps keep teenagers out of trouble by creating a positive place to gather together with friends.

"Everyone feels the emotions of a movie in a wave and the feeling, that 'together' as a community, can't be duplicated," Sconce said of watching movies together. "It's a glimpse of other people's worlds, and where else do you get to see that besides in books? You don't have to actually have the peril and terror, but you can still learn the lesson of being in someone else's life, and it actually impacts you like you actually saw it happen ...

"To have that ripped away with the closure of the Met -- that's why there was actually grieving. It was like people were losing a part of themselves in the past."

"James, Matt, Keith and all of their supporters have performed a great service for this community and saved a much needed and well-loved business which would otherwise have been lost," said Greg Chappel, incoming 2013 president of the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce and Oakhurst lawyer who provided legal services to help reopen the theater. "We are confident that this effort will result in a stronger Oakhurst economy and provide an important service to the members of our community."

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