Cory Jacobson, president of Michigan-based Phoenix Theatres, the owner of the Beacon Cinema in downtown Pittsfield, started in the movie theater business as a teenager.
“I was 14-years-old when I learned how to pop popcorn. It was my first job and I never left,” Cory said. “Since then, I’ve painted floors, fixed seats and done what is necessary to fix up a theater. “I am particularly proud to say that every person that works in our corporate office has started their career in the cinema business at entry level jobs, popping popcorn, showing movies or ripping tickets and now
play a key roles in operating our own theatre circuit.”
He started rejuvenating and renovating theaters in 1981. It became his passion. After years of working for others, Cory started Phoenix Theatres in 2000 to revitalize older theaters and theaters that had not reached their potential.
“We have typically gone into locations that the large theater circuits have walked away from. In some cases they threw the keys at the landlord and walked away,” he said. “We’ve gone in and renovated those buildings and reestablished the theaters. Now those are successful businesses again.”
Cory cited as an example the Phoenix Theatres Kennedy Mall in Dubuque, Iowa, which it acquired in January 2018. The previous owners announced that they were going to close. Since taking over the location and reopening the theater in April 2019, Cory says that the theater has done so well that the company now plans to add additional screens.
“We work at a granular level to make sure that everything is right. We’re ground game people,” Cory said. “Unlike the big companies that worry about entire regions with decisions that apply to every theater, we can attend to the small details that are unique to each location. We work to become a part of the community.”
Cory wasn’t expecting to purchase the Beacon Cinema when he visited Pittsfield. The first time he visited, Berkshire Bank and the Beacon owners asked Cory and his team to analyze how the Beacon might improve its business results. With their experience running independent theaters, Phoenix is sought after for advice by exhibitors and financial institutions around the country.
“The business had dropped off a bit at the Beacon after a competitor put in recliners at their theater. So, we looked at the Beacon, made some suggestions operationally and recommended they install electric recliners,” he said.
After several years, Cory and his team came to the East Coast for another reason. They were asked by Berkshire Bank to visit to discuss the Beacon some more.
“We did not expect that anything would happen when the team and I drove out here from Michigan initially on vacation,” he said. “They asked if we would be interested in managing the theater theatere in some sort of transition period. Instead of just managing it, I asked the question, ‘how much would this go for?’ It was one of those happenstance moments.”
Cory was interested because he believed in the theater’s fundamental qualities.
“I think historic buildings in downtown areas are the future. The Beacon Cinema is at the heart of a community that is not going anywhere,” Cory said. “I think the whole downtown area has a lot of charm and a lot of renewed interest, particularly with young adults. For us, it just pulls at your heartstrings to say that this is an iconic building in an iconic location that you want to see succeed.”
To pull everything together, Cory’s team worked very closely with Deanna Ruffer, Director of Community Development for the City of Pittsfield. Phoenix Theatres to date has invested over a million dollars for the building and restructuring leases for the projection equipment, seats, contents and made various cosmetic improvements including adding heat to the reclining chairs. They also committed to keeping the theater open in downtown for ten years.
The City forgave a portion and extended the remaining loan that had been given to the previous theater owner so that the theater would remain open in downtown. The terms stated that 10% of the loan would be forgiven after each year of the ten-year commitment. Pittsfield’s goal is to make sure that there is a vibrant movie theater downtown for at least the next ten years.
It did not take long for their effort to pay off.
“Nationally, the theater business is down about 8% from last year. The Beacon Cinema has had more customers year-to-date than the previous operator had over the prior year. I expect that we will be up 17% to 25% overall this year,” Cory said.
It is not just the number of admissions that have gone up, but other revenues have improved as well.
“Concession business is up dramatically. We changed the menu and the way we present the merchandise. People are buying more food,” he said.
Cory said that his growth is also great for all of downtown because of the “symbiotic relationship” the theater has with businesses nearby.
“If you go downstairs and talk to the folks at the Marketplace Café, they will tell you that they are selling more deli sandwiches, salads and coffee. If you walk down the street to Steve Valenti’s clothing store, he will tell you that just having us in town helps him sell more socks and suits and everything else. He’s having his best year ever,” Cory said. “There are just more people. I am hoping that those 25,000 more people who will come to the movies this year will also go and have a fabulous dinner at District, Trattoria Rustica or Eat on North in Hotel on North. Perhaps they will look at some furniture at Paul Rich down the road or look at some of the other great stores.”
Cory praised the City’s economic development efforts for having a positive impact on the business community.
“Without the City’s help, we certainly wouldn’t be here,” Cory said. “The City has been wonderful. We deal with a lot of folks in a lot of communities. I wish they had a City Hall with staff as knowledgeable and welcoming as the people in Pittsfield at all of the other towns we operate in as well.”
The Beacon Cinema is located at 57 North St, Pittsfield. The phone number is (413) 358-4780.
– by Roger Matus