Big movie theater chains are struggling. But a chain of quaint, local theaters in Pa. and N.J. is doing just fine

With the support of loyal members and “Barbenheimer,” Renew Theaters, which operates theaters in Ambler, Doylestown, Jenkintown and Princeton, is thriving.

Listen 7:00
The exterior view of the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown

The Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

From Delco to Chesco and Montco to Bucks, what about life in Philly’s suburbs do you want WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Whether it be from the rise of streaming or the COVID-19 pandemic, the obituary of the American movie theater has been written ten times over.

“Barbie” couldn’t save the debt-ridden AMC Theaters, the world’s largest movie theater chain.

Cineworld, which owns more than 500 Regal theaters across the country, shuttered two theaters in Doylestown, Bucks County, and Oaks, Montgomery County, as it moved through the restructuring process and box office forecasts for 2024 predict a stall in industry recovery.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

While the corporate giants of the silver screen continue to struggle since the height of the pandemic, a small nonprofit theater chain in the suburbs of Philadelphia and New Jersey is thriving.

Renew Theaters, which operates the Ambler Theater in Ambler, the County Theater in Doylestown, the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown and the Princeton Garden Theatre in Princeton, is doing brisk business.

The cultural phenomenon of watching “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” back-to-back, also known as “Barbenheimer,” became a critical catalyst.

“‘Barbenheimer’ was huge for us and one of the things that finally brought people back to the theater,” said Chris Collier, executive director of Renew. “We had a lot of people saying this was the first time that they were back. 2023 was an exceptional year with a lot of good movies.”

Christopher Collier poses next to a projector
Christopher Collier, executive director of Renew Theaters, with the 35mm projector at the Ambler Theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

How ‘Barbenheimer’ and dedicated members saved Renew Theaters following pandemic freeze

The County Theater attained its highest grossing box office ever in 2023, Collier said. “Barbie” is Renew’s top-selling film of in its 30 years of operation, raking in more than $100,000.

“Barbie” was also the number one movie at the Ambler and Hiway theaters in 2023 by a wide margin and “Oppenheimer” became Princeton Garden’s top earner in 2023.

“But we would not have been in that position to show those films, were it not for our members and donors who really saw us through,” Collier said. “Day-to-day tickets sales and concession pays for the regular movies that we show. Membership really allows us to take care of our historic buildings and to program films that are not linked specifically to box office potential.”

Chalfont residents Jason Marcewicz and Stacy Borans were among the community members who helped buoy the theater during a dark age for the business of cinema.

Their devotion to the Ambler and County theaters is bigger than niche movies, cheaper tickets and lower popcorn prices. The couple view the theater as a pillar of the community.

“It is really critical and central to the town to have a theater like this that brings in people and really kind of keeps them here because there’s so much to do,” Borans said.

Jason Marcewicz (left) and Stacy Borans (right) pose for a photo at the movie theater
Jason Marcewicz (left) and Stacy Borans (right), members of the Ambler Theater, at their favorite photo spot in the movie theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ambler’s revitalization mirrors theater’s comeback story

The story of Ambler and its historic theater have an almost poetic connection.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

A large part of the borough’s growth can be attributed to the railroad and the arrival of Keasbey and Mattison Company in 1881. The company processed raw asbestos at its factory, giving Ambler the unofficial title of the “asbestos-manufacturing capital of the world.”

It is during those times that Warner Bros. first opened the Ambler Theater in 1928 with a showing of “Our Dancing Daughters” starring Joan Crawford. The building was equipped with a pipe organ and a loading bay for vaudeville shows. It soon became a fixture for the community.

“It ran pretty well until about the ‘50s and then with changes in terms of television, suburbanization, it also turns out asbestos is bad — the town folded and the theater fell into harder times,” Collier said.

The exterior view of the Ambler Theater
The Ambler Theater was opened by Warner Bros. in 1928 and is currently operated by a nonprofit, Renew Theaters. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The property eventually fell into the hands of local reverend Harry Bristow Jr. He relaunched the theater in the 1970s as a Christian cinema. After more than 20 years, the building fell into disrepair and the Christian movie theater closed in 1997.

Harry Bristow Jr. died in 1996 and the building passed on to his son, Gary Bristow. In the years that followed, people began to wonder what would happen to the historic building.

Bernadette Dougherty, 74, the longest-serving founding board member of the Ambler Theater, first heard about the County Theater in 2000 and connected with founder John Toner.

“I set up a meeting with a couple of the town’s leaders and myself and we drove up to Doylestown and we met John and pitched the Ambler Theater — and he said, ‘Sounds interesting. Maybe we can do something there,’” Dougherty said.

Bernadette Dougherty stands near the star donated by her and her family outside the Ambler Theater.
Bernadette Dougherty stands near the star donated by her and her family outside the Ambler Theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She found out that Bristow worked at a nearby Best Buy. Dougherty routinely visited there and developed a unique pitch.

“The first Monday of every month, I drove to Best Buy, went to the appliance department and I said, ‘Gary, would you like to sell the Ambler movie theater?’”

Each time, Bristow respectfully declined — until one visit in 2000, during which he said yes. Dougherty said Mike Sloane, a local car dealer and entrepreneur interested in Ambler’s rejuvenation, helped seal the deal.

“There was a lot of work that needed to be done. But so much of the original part of the building was still here and that’s why it’s so special today,” Dougherty said.

The Ambler Theater, in its current form, reopened in 2003. It almost seemed to feed off the energy of a town that was positioning itself as a destination suburb.

“I’m a big fan of this theater because it’s more than just showing movies. It’s an anchor. It’s a community center. It’s where people want to be,” Dougherty said. “We just recently had our Hollywood Awards Night where we have a nice little reception first and then we show the Oscars on the big screen. The ladies get dressed up in gowns and boas. We had a sea of pink this year. Everybody was Barbie. So it was so much fun and everybody feels that this is their theater.”

Friends Carole Green (left), Lucrecia Herr (center) and Kenna Adatte (right) pose for a photo at the theater
Friends Carole Green (left), Lucrecia Herr (center) and Kenna Adatte (right) enjoyed a foreign film in the afternoon at the Ambler Theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

How Renew survived pandemic shutdowns

Grant Gow, Renew’s administrative assistant, remembers the difficult weeks and months after Governor Tom Wolf issued the order in March 2020 closing a slew of indoor spaces, including entertainment venues.

“They kept us on the books for a little bit and then staff-wise, we got furloughed but they had us on,” Gow said. “We still got paid for at least two months after that initial shutdown in March 2020.”

The four theaters remained closed for 15 months until June 2021. However, Renew was able to stay afloat through the COVID-era mitigation regulations with the help of donors and its members. The membership funding structure, which is present across Renew’s four theaters, allowed them to take risk — and inadvertently buffer themselves against future hardship.

“People rallied behind us during the pandemic, even if they weren’t able to come out,” Gow said.

Grant Gow poses for a photo in the Ambler Theater
Grant Gow in the lobby of the Ambler Theater. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Many stuck with the theaters through virtual events and socially-distanced outdoor screenings of classic movies. Government funding from avenues like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant also helped keep the theaters open.

Collier said the rebound was slow, until the box office began booming once again in 2023.

“We look at our theaters not just as a place to see movies, but as a community location, as a third place where people can gather and feel connected and we really leaned into that following the pandemic so that people could come back and have those connections again,” Collier said. “We see a lot of people just lingering in the lobby, you know, discussing the films, and that’s what we want.”

Collier said the theaters’ investments into making the spaces a community hub to bump into neighbors and talk about the movies is the special ingredient for long-term sustainability.

What makes a local theater different from its corporate counterparts? Loyalty — and cinema as a public space

The Ambler Theater had 80,000 visitors in 2023. According to Dougherty that’s a “huge” deal.

“There are so many things that have nothing to do with films that happen in this space,” Dougherty said. “There are book signings. There are children’s parties. There are public meetings. There are neighborhood groups coming together and they’re not coming for a movie. They’re coming together as a sense of community and a place to gather.”

Surrounding the Ambler Theater is a bunch of local restaurants and shops. Dougherty said the theater acts as an “anchor” to the community.

“There’s loyalty to this theater,” Dougherty said. “It’s about membership. It’s about ownership. So it’s different than going to a conventional movie theater that a big company owns.”

Another thing separating the quartet of local theaters from a larger for-profit chain is their movie selection and programming.

Collier called the careful curation of movies “dark arts.” Renew’s curators spend a lot of time hunting down rare films to exhibit, old classics to revive, film festival darlings to showcase and the well-received blockbuster.

“The community wants to see movies on the big screen, but they don’t necessarily want to see blockbusters — new blockbusters all the time,” Marcewicz said. “They love to see ‘Airplane’ again and ‘Casablanca’ again and ‘Key Largo’ and ‘The Road Warrior.’ All these films have an audience and it’s great seeing them on the big screen.”

Marcewicz, a self-proclaimed fan of the classics, said he likes the cross-generational appeal of showing all types of films at the theater. He said parents can teach their kids a bit of history, while the kids can open a window for their parents to what’s new.

“I think it is really important for people to know that theaters like the Ambler, like the County, like the Hiway and the Princeton Garden — that they exist, that they’re out here and that they can really be a different type of movie experience than you would think of going a Regal or an AMC,” Borans said.

Fresh out of a Thursday evening showing of “Dune: Part Two” at the Hiway, Jessica Hargraves said supporting the theater is also supporting her town.

“I’m already a member of the Hiway Theater and I really love supporting a local business. I’m also a Jenkintown resident. So, I really want to keep Jenkintown thriving — and buying tickets here is a way to do that,” Hargraves said.

A sign reads "Hiway" on the exterior of the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown
The Hiway Theater in Jenkintown, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Carole Green, a Chestnut Hill resident, who recently watched the French film “A Taste of Things” at Ambler, said the theater has “ruined” her experience of going to a bigger chain.

“Having it be local-supported, membership-based and of course an old building that they were able to renovate — I mean to save a pretty historic building in Amber just adds that much more to the community,” Green said.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal