SOUTH KINGSTOWN — In a perfectly timed twist reminiscent of the cinema, the magic of the movies is making a return to South County Commons.
In March, Your Neighborhood Cinemas announced the permanent closure of Entertainment Cinemas 8, the popular South County Commons theater, citing the pandemic. Recently, however, Harold Blank and Bill Dougherty, the team behind the successful Mystic Luxury Cinemas in Connecticut, unveiled that they have entered into an agreement for a long-term lease of the former Entertainment Cinemas’ property in the burgeoning shopping and dining plaza. According to the duo, the new business, All South County Luxury Cinemas, will eventually mirror what made their Mystic venture so well received — full recliner, heated seats, alcohol service, hot food options, a diversified film and programming schedule, theater rentals, and most importantly, the philosophy that every guest is important.
“What we saw is a location that, if we were to upgrade the seats, upgrade how we relate to our people, make certain that we do a very diversified programming schedule that not only plays blockbusters and the regular movies, but plays specialty movies, one-night event movies and the like in order to appeal to every demographic, we could replicate our success in Mystic,” Blank said. “We happen to love moviegoing. We think that, given the proper facility, we can duplicate that.”
The new location will operate as-is for the summer months, and Blank and Dougherty hope to keep the theater open during interior renovations that are expected to be completed in the fall. Dougherty will concentrate on the operation of the cinema and says the All South County Luxury Cinema will be just that, “a luxury cinema for all South County guests and a cinema they all can be proud of. The theatre will belong to the community and we will make everyone proud.”
In 2015, Blank, a longtime cinema operator, purchased the Mystic 3 from Dougherty, and the two turned the Mystic 3 into its current iteration — a luxury theater with a focus on comfort, programming and hospitality.
“We’ve turned moviegoing into a little bit more than moviegoing in the sense that Mystic is kind of a boutique cinema,” said Blank. “We’re very proud of it.”
In Mystic, Blank and Dougherty experimented with programming, not only screening the big blockbusters and little indie darlings, but also exhibiting television events and specialty films such as under-the-radar documentaries, cult hits and classics. The Mystic theater also played host to an annual film festival.
While the duo says they will provide the comfy chairs that have become a staple at their Mystic location for every seat at All South County Luxury Cinemas, there will be one auditorium where Blank and Dougherty will do what they do best — get creative. For this one space, the two are imagining stadium seating in the back of the theater, no traditional seating in the front, and are instead considering couches and bean bag chairs to provide a more casual experience, where the theater could even be rented out by a private group or party for the evening. Private theater rentals and screenings became a popular trend for beleaguered cinemas during the pandemic, and Blank reports there were over 500 such rentals last year in Mystic, where guests, which ranged from a husband and wife to a group of 20 friends to entire extended families, could view content of their choice — old classics or even movies and shows exclusively available on streaming services. One family, Blank notes, even screened video of a dance recital in the theater.
“We’re kind of throwing ideas back and forth as to what to do,” he said. “We’re thinking of some couches, a portable bar, bean bag chairs for kids, I have no idea what it’s going to be. Maybe the public can call us up with some ideas. We’d like to think outside the box in that one theater.”
Though cinemas were hit hard by the pandemic, and the worrying Delta variant is starting to emerge locally, Blank and Dougherty are confident the Mystic model can work in southern Rhode Island. Last week, Disney’s “Black Widow” raked in $80 million at the domestic box office, a pandemic record and the highest opening since 2019’s “The Rise of Skywalker.”
“Every industry gets affected over time,” Blank said. “The pandemic has affected the moviegoing industry, people stayed home and streamed because there was nowhere to go, and you couldn’t go to the movies.”
“I strongly believe the movie industry is healthy,” he continued. “I strongly believe that if we give South County a place they can be proud of, both in terms of the facility and how we treat them as guests, [they will come to the theater].”
Blank and Dougherty intend to open the new All South County Luxury Cinemas in the South County Commons at the end of July, and the pair are hoping to fully renovate the space — namely widening each auditorium to fit the new, bigger seats — by Nov. 1.
“I think there’s a good quality of people [in Washington County],” Blank concluded. “It’s a very healthy demographic, it’s a growing demographic. It’s got kind of a mirror summer population that Mystic gets because of the seaport and the aquarium, and what you have in Narragansett are the beaches, some of the best beaches in the world. And I think there is a desire to return to that magical place, the movie theater, and see a film on the big screen with great sound, and see it in an auditorium with other people. That’s what we see.”