Plaza Maplewood Theatre to change management


On Nov. 1, Woodland Hills Church will take over management of the Plaza Maplewood Theatre. The church has owned the building since 2001 and will continue to run it as a theater, while also adding church programming. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Nathan Block gets a film going in the projection room at the Plaza Maplewood Theatre. Block has owned the Plaza business for over fifteen years, but will give it up at the end of the month. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Brent Erwin, long-time manager at the Plaza Maplewood Theatre, sits at his desk. Erwin will stop working at the theater at the end of the month. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The Plaza is known for its popcorn, which is made fresh before each showing with real butter. Using real butter is a rarity in theaters these days, Erwin said. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

A moviegoer purchases an evening matinee ticket at the Plaza Maplewood Theatre. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Will go from the hands of a movie nerd to the hands of a church

When 25-year-old movie nerd Nathan Block was offered the chance to buy the Plaza Maplewood Theatre 15 years ago, he tried to play it cool.

He says he told the owners that he’d have to think about it, and that he’d need to see the numbers.

“But inside, I was like ‘Where do I sign?’” he said. “It was all I had ever dreamed of doing since my college days.”

So it didn’t take long for him to sign on -- he convinced his dad to co-sign on a loan -- and on May 1, 1998, he took control of the place, taking it over from his former bosses. From then out, he was his own boss. 

He had a particular affinity to the discount theater, which shows “second-run” movies at a sharp discount from the big theaters playing movies fresh out of Hollywood. To this day, it costs only $2 to see a movie at the theater.

Block said his own upbringing included a lot of trips to discount theaters. With two working-class parents, “we couldn’t afford to go to first-run movies,” he said. He listed off something like a dozen discount theaters the family would go to. Now he says that number is way down.

“You’ve got four discount theaters to serve four million people,” he said. “My philosophy in running this place was trying to keep that legacy alive.”

After figuring out the purchase, he “put together the world’s most elementary business plan,” he said.

“I made every mistake known to man,” Block said. At one point, he tried to run it as a first-run theater. It tanked, and he had to rebuild the business from scratch.

He credits the support of staff, the former owners and the community for making it work.

It took eight years to get the business into shape, and since then, things have been fairly stable, he said. Walking in, the smell of freshly popped popcorn made with real butter hits the nostrils. The 1967-built theater has a small-time, old-school vibe to it. It’s been a way for East Siders and Maplewood residents alike to catch a movie on a budget for decades.

With 15 years at the place behind his belt, it’s going to be very difficult for him when at the end of the month, he will give up control of the place to the building owner, his landlord Woodland Hills Church.

“This has been a rough thing to deal with,” he said. “Imagine if your child turned 15 and someone took him away.”

Not too churchy

Starting Nov. 1, Woodland Hills will be running the show. The congregation cut a deal to end Block’s lease early so that the church can move in, with the intention of keeping it running as a theater, but adding other church-related programming.

While the management of the theater will change, church leaders say they plan to carry on the theater’s tradition of showing a wide variety of movies at a $2 ticket price.

“If it’s going to be a service to the neighborhood, you’ve got to give customers what they’ve come to expect,” said Charley Swanson, spokesperson for Woodland Hills Church. “We’re pretty confident that if we changed it to all cartoons and Christian shows that it wouldn’t go well.”

Pastor Greg Boyd said that would include showing the same kinds of movies Block’s been showing, which typically feature everything from kid’s movies to R-rated horror flicks.

“We’ve got no hang-ups [about showing R-rated movies],” Boyd said. “We’re not one of those ‘fundy’ churches where they ... try to make all the decisions for people.

“We teach principles ... how people apply them, we just don’t micromanage that.”

Boyd was quick to note that the Woodland Hills intends to keep the place running indefinitely.

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “If anything we want to make whatever improvements we can make... It’s kind of become a historical piece of this neighborhood.”

Swanson said the theater will be closed for a short while come Nov. 1 so the church can get oriented with the operations of the place, and make some quick renovations, things like painting and cleaning, and possibly updating the restrooms. The closure shouldn’t last more than a couple weeks, he said.

He also said the church has begun reaching out to other theaters around town, looking for retired projectionists who can show the church how to operate the projectors.

“We know we’re going to need some outside help and expertise to help us get started,” he said.

Contract negotiations

The change in management comes as the result of a complicated contract negotiation process.

Brent Erwin, who’s managed the Plaza for the past eight years, said Block had been on a provisional lease with a lower rent beginning in 2012, so that the theater could raise funds to go digital. Hollywood films will stop being distributed in film reels by the end of the year, Erwin said. So, the theater would need to install digital projectors in order to continue.

Between the lower rent and other fundraising efforts, Erwin said the Plaza had raised about $45,000 to get digital equipment, and was ready to start looking for a loan. But Block needed a long-term lease before he could get the loan, Erwin said.

So Block approached Woodland Hills in June of 2013, asking for a 10-year lease that would secure his place in the theater, and make it easier to find a loan for the pricey digital projectors, which Erwin said would cost somewhere between $90,000 and $150,000.

The church delayed in giving him an answer. Erwin said the process was frustrating -- the theater management was held in limbo, unsure of what would happen, whether they’d be able to go digital before film reels stopped being available. But at the end of August, the final word was out: Woodland Hills would take over.

On Aug. 28, Block sent a note to his patrons. He wrote: “It has been a real pleasure to serve you for these last 15 years. I will miss all of you and this little gem of a theater more than I can express in words.”

Erwin said he was stunned by the news.

“It went from [church leaders] saying that they had all intents of keeping the theater open and allowing us to stay ... to them pulling the rug out from under us and saying ‘no, we are now planning to take it over ourselves,’” Erwin said.

Erwin said he and Block are not happy about the arrangement. “We’re leaving kicking and screaming,” he added.

Added church uses

Swanson explained that long term, moving into the theater “has always been a hope.”

But “only recently have we been intentional about it,” Boyd added.

They don’t plan to interrupt the movie scheduling, Boyd said, and they plan to convert to digital projectors before film reels stop being available. “We want the movies going because it’s a service to the community.”

However, “we want to supplement that with other things ... like using the space for things that really further our vision.”

Though Swanson said the congregation doesn’t have specific plans for the type of church programming it might do out of the space, it has some ideas.

Boyd noted Woodland Hills, which is located in a former big box home improvement store called Builders Square, is “kind of crammed on Sunday mornings.”

Swanson said that on a typical Sunday morning about 2,000 people attend worship services at the church.

Boyd said that the church hosts two other congregations -- Hmong Mennonite Church and Freedom Through Christ Deliverance Ministry, but the building cannot accommodate a Sunday morning service for them. This could be one way to use the theater space, he said.

In addition, the church hosts other community programming, including events for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and a food shelf.

“We want to be bringing that kind of thing to the theater,” Boyd said.

Looking forward

Swanson said Block’s frustration over losing the theater is understandable.

“It’s not easy to see somebody who’s put a lot of energy into something frustrated like that,” he said. “He truly has done a really good thing for this neighborhood for a long, long time... and I think a lot of what we’ll do will be to continue some of the patterns that he’s set. But as a church organization we want to make sure that we’re using our property for the goals and purpose of the organization, and that’s really what this comes down to.”

Despite Block mourning the loss of his Maplewood theater, he still maintains a positive outlook. “I still lead a charmed life,” he said. “I get to work with movies. ... I work for myself ... it’s been a wonderful way to live my life.”

Block also co-owns the Woodbury 10, a highly successful first-run movie theater.

He said he would miss the Plaza’s intimacy and the involvement he’s had with the place. For years he worked 60 to 80 hour weeks. He put in new seats himself, reupholstering some used seats he bought from a defunct movie theater.

He said he used do special introductions for movies he was particularly passionate about. He recalled when he had showed the movie “Memento,” and would end up discussing the film with people afterwards, sometimes to the point where a crowd would build around him.

He also hosted a large group of group home residents once a month, opening up the theater just for them. While he could’ve had staff run the theater for these, he chose to be there himself.

Erwin said that for Block, the Plaza Maplewood has been “mainly a hobby, a pet project, a passion of his,” rather than a money-maker. “[Block] hoped he was going to have this theater forever,” he said.

Of all the things he’ll miss, Block said he’ll miss the people the most.

“It’s small enough that you get to know names and faces,” he said. At his other theater, “you don’t get to talk to people the way you do here.”

As for discount theaters in general, Block is hoping people will continue to opt for the movie-going experience, rather than staying in and watching movies at home.

Ultimately, the life of budget theaters like Plaza Maplewood “is in the hand of the consumer,” Block said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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