Monday will mark Parkhill Cinema’s 20th year of operation under its current management, but instead of celebrating, Tarboro’s hometown movie theater finds itself “fighting just to stay open,” said manager Jason Clark.
Regardless, Clark plans to run an anniversary special for patrons the first weekend of October.
“Unless something changes quickly and drastically, Tarboro will lose its movie theater again,” said Clark. “We have gotten to this point several times in the past and have always found a way to overcome it. This time things seem very different. The mall (Riverside Plaza) is in disarray as is the economy and there are expensive upgrades (digital and seats) that will be required just to be able to show movies.”
Small movie theaters nationwide are facing closure because of Hollywood studios’ switch from 35mm film to digital. Patrick Corcoran of the National Association of Theatre Owners told The Associated Press that the cost of converting one screen to digital is about $70,000.
The closure of small-town movie theaters means people will have to drive farther from their homes and likely pay more to see movies on the big screen. Ticket prices at Parkhill are $6 for adults and $4 for children and senior citizens. If Parkhill Cinema closes, Tarboro residents will have to drive at least 20 minutes to the nearest movie theater in Rocky Mount, where tickets at Premier 14 are $8.25 for adults and $6.25 for children and seniors.
“You can’t get a better price for the movie or concessions in out-of-town venues. We go almost every Friday night,” said Edgecombe Community College employee Sandra Sanderson. While the “aesthetics” of Parkhill Cinema don’t compare to larger, newer theaters, the movies are “timely from the release, the staff is very friendly and the popcorn is hot,” she said.
“I would hate to see it close,” said Mike Matthews, Tarboro’s director of water and sewer. “To see them still hanging on gives a little bit of hope that something else might come in there [the mall.]”
Matthews takes his two young children to Sunday matinees. As a child in daycare, Matthews watched movies at the theater every week. In those days, he said he went out to eat at the Golden Corral with his family and went shopping at K-Mart and Belk.
“We didn’t have any need to go to Greenville or Rocky Mount. Most of what you needed was right here in Tarboro,” said Matthews. Now, a nail salon is the only business remaining in the mall besides the movie theater.
“That’s the only thing in Tarboro left for people to do,” said Layne Andrews, a student at Edgecombe Community College. “If they had enough money to move out toward Wal-Mart, I’m thinking they would have more business.”
Hayley Coley, an employee of Parkhill Cinema, had similar thoughts.
“It gives the teenagers and kids something to do, because there’s nothing else here,” she said.
Coley and Courtney Hardin, both college students, have worked at the theater for four years. They said the small staff feels like family and they know most of the patrons when they walk in the door.
”It’s more friendly with a smaller theater,” said Hardin.
Clark said he has many loyal customers who come to the theater every week and “seem like family.”
“I have watched kids grow up and even bring their own kids to the movies,” he said. “It has been great hearing how much someone enjoyed a movie and seeing kids eager with anticipation when the lights begin to dim. After all, going to the movies is a special time for families and dates and that feeling cannot be duplicated.”
Despite the loyalty of some of Clark’s customers, he said it will take “a much larger effort from the community” to make the theater a successful business.
Sandra Sanderson was succinct in her thoughts: “Town of Tarboro, your future is in your hands by supporting local small businesses. The foundation of our local and national economic system relies on small businesses like Parkhill Cinema.”