In a surprising show of support for the future of Chicago-area moviegoing, owners of the Music Box Theatre, the Davis Theater, the New 400 Theaters and Downers Grove-based Classic Cinemas have expressed interest in the recently closed 18-screen Cinemark multiplex in downtown Evanston.
“If any place is going to have theaters that can survive and thrive, it’s a place like Evanston,” said Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films president William Schopf Thursday. “They lean progressive, they’re proud of their diversity, they support culture and the movies. It’s the same audience as we have at the Music Box.”
Chris Johnson, head of Classic Cinemas, owns three theaters in Cook County and 14 overall in Illinois. “We’re local and we’re interested,” he said Thursday. The former Cinemark site, now known as the Evanston Theater, houses 18 screeners, which is “on the higher end,” Johnson noted. “But we’re looking at it and doing our research.”
The Texas-based Cinemark chain spent more than a year, including several months prior to the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, trying to break its lease with the owners of the building at 1715 Maple Ave. near Church Street.
Until recently the second-story movie theaters served as anchor tenant of a block-long parcel owned by Stockbridge Capital Group, a private-equity real-estate firm headquartered in San Francisco. As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business years ago, Stockbridge paid a hefty $70 million for the 180,000-square-feet parcel in 2013. The theaters account for 70,000 square feet of the parcel’s tenants, which include Alpana Singh’s restaurant Terra & Vine, Urban Outfitters and a Chili’s.
Once you build a substantial multiplex, it’s hard to renovate it cost-efficiently for another line of business. And from every indication, the City of Evanston wants to keep it a multiplex and broker a deal between Stockbridge and the right movie theater owner/operator.
Various prospective bidders have had preliminary discussions with the city’s economic development manager, Paul Zalmezak, and Annie Coakley, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Evanston consulting firm.
“Every call and email has warmed my heart,” Coakley said Wednesday. “I mean, this is a precarious time to consider expansion for any business owner, but movies have been around forever and a day. And there’s a reason for it.”
Tony Fox, a real-estate developer and Evanston native who operates the New 400 Theaters in Rogers Park and the University of Chicago-backed Harper Theater in Hyde Park, said Thursday that “in my discussion with the City of Evanston, they made it clear they’re absolutely committed to a theater downtown.”
Zalmezak is bullish to the point of certainty. “We know we’ll get another theater to take over,” he said.
Some prospective theater operators interviewed for this column suggested that Stockbridge may entertain thoughts of building a mid-rise condo building where the theaters and other tenants are situated. But as Zalmezak noted Thursday: “Any change to the existing use would require significant community input and, ultimately, city council approval. We know a theater works in that location. It was always profitable. And there’s viable interest in keeping theaters there.”
City officials, he added, “are always open to these kinds of conversations.” But they’re not currently interested in any plans that would “involve demolishing the theater to build a tower.”
Emails to Stockbridge were not returned Thursday.
When the economy takes a downturn “there’s always some heartbreaking fallout,” said Ben Munro, co-owner of the Lincoln Square Davis Theater Thursday. “But there’s also opportunity. Whether or not we’d like to be involved long-term (in the Evanston Theater’s next iteration), we don’t know. But we’re open to any potential projects they have in mind. As long as the theater industry is anything more than dead, we’re interested.”
By email Wednesday, Schopf of the Music Box addressed some comments made in earlier news stories about Cinemark bailing out, after many months of unsuccessful attempts to get Stockbridge Capital to chip in on renovation and upgrade costs. Cinemark closed several of its locations nationwide in February, including one in northwest suburban Bloomingdale’s Stratford Square mall.
“I have read some of the media coverage of the closure and suggestions that what was needed was reclining seats,” Schopf wrote. “My apologies, but I do not think that is the Evanston audience. Rather, I believe they want excellent, curated programming and they want many of the films to be eventized with visiting directors, talent, panel discussions, etc., as we do at the Music Box, all in a well-maintained theater.”
Consultant Coakley agreed, at least with the reclining seats or dine-in part of it.
A theater downtown, she argued, “can support so many good restaurants and eateries in the neighborhood.” Plans for Skokie’s Northlight Theatre to relocate to downtown Evanston’s Church Street, near the Evanston Theater, remain in gradual progress, though millions must be raised by Northlight to bring that to fruition.
Still, Coakley said, it’s exactly what the city wants downtown on the same corridor as a reopened, refurbished and revived movie theater.
“Dinner and a movie, a play and a movie — these things go hand in hand.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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