Lifelong friends, Matt Sconce and Keith Walker, found out their hometown movie theater “The Met Cinema,” was closing in their small town of Oakhurst, California and decided to do something about it. Back in 2013 they launched “Movie Heroes,” a Netflix type subscription theater plan to save their town’s theater and ultimately succeeded with amazing results. Now, they’re looking to expand and save struggling theaters everywhere.
I’m excited Matt and Keith took the time to talk to us here at SILVER PETTICOAT about Movie Heroes, what movies mean to them, the struggles they faced along the way, what’s next and more.
Amber: Can you each tell me a little bit about your background and what movies mean to you?
Keith: My background is in engineering. And an interesting connection between engineering and movies is I remember always liking understanding the way the world works and understanding how machines work and was leaning in the direction of engineering. But I remember watching the movie October Sky (at the theater that we ended up saving later) as a kid. It was a tipping point for me when I realized this is what I want to do. I ended up becoming an engineer and going into aerospace engineering just like as portrayed in the movie. So I think movies are powerful and they have the ability to move us emotionally and to help us visualize the world as it could be.
Matt: I was a communications major in college and I always liked communicating in storytelling, narrative ways. My last two feature films that I actually directed, Stricken and Firefall: Mythic Family Adventure, I just had a lot of fun with. And I thought, “I want to do this with my life.” I think that movies are a way for us to experience other people’s lives. I feel like movies, narrative movies especially, allow you to be that character, to experience all these things that maybe you haven’t ever been able to experience and see other perspectives that maybe you never have before. So the ability of movies to move you emotionally and change and impact you I think are incomparable.
I feel like if Oakhurst had lost its movie theater, children would grow up without that ability. A movie theater, there’s no pausing, there’s no stopping. Movies become extremely high value in the theater versus at home because every second counts. You’re just plugged in. So I think they are an integral part of society, a teaching tool. If it was gone, then Oakhurst would have lost that. So movies mean everything to me. I live and breathe them. I love them.
Amber: I feel the same way. I love movies just as much as you do, so I get it! Matt, I know Keith already answered this question, but what’s a special memory you have connected to the Met Cinema?
Matt: My first date was at the Met Cinema. I remember I went there with a girl and watched Oliver & Company, the animated film. And that was my first date ever. So that’s a good memory. And then, another memory is I remember watching The Matrix at the Met Cinema. When I walked out I was questioning myself like, “Are we actually in the Matrix? Maybe we are.” And I remember standing outside of the Met Cinema, kind of looking at the world trying to reevaluate my opinion on things. It was a really awesome moment ‘cause that movie really affected me.
Amber: So let’s talk Movie Heroes and how it started. I know you’ve talked about [the Met Cinema] already a little bit, but what was your initial reaction when you first learned that it was closing?
Matt: Somebody drove by and told me that the Met Cinema closed. And I was like, “No, it can’t have closed. It’s been there since 1986. It’s been there since I’ve lived in the mountain.” I drove by and I saw that it said, “We are closed. It’s been a pleasure serving you.” And so then it became real. I noticed there was a lot of grieving. We had lost something that really meant a lot to the town.
I remember walking out one night after youth group and there was our friend James Nelson waiting in the dark in the parking lot. And he said, “Hey, I have an idea. Maybe we can save the theater.” So James, who is an awesome guy (he’s still part of the company, but he lives in Texas), came up with the idea of subscription theaters. And I said, “Well it’s a great idea, but we don’t have the capability to program and do all these things. So let’s call the epic Keith Walker.” So we did. And Keith drove out immediately, like that night. And then we had this big brainstorming session.
Amber: What was your reaction Keith?
Keith: My parents still live in Oakhurst and the whole town I think was in mourning. And even though I wasn’t living there I definitely shared in that. And it kind of felt like it was taking Oakhurst, our hometown off the map. Like Oakhurst is no longer to the outside world. It’s just this little town that doesn’t even have a movie theater. And it was really sad. I just hopped in my car and drove to Oakhurst.
Matt: We basically had one month to prepare our campaign and get everybody on board which were the owners, the former owners, the Landlords… So we had to do all of that and then we had to develop the software. We had to organize an awareness campaign that had to impact all of them [about 20,000 households in seven towns] in time to have them all sign up [by New Year’s]. We knew that we needed about 3,000 people to feel like we’d have a stable theater. And so it was a pretty tall order. We hit the ground running with this giant campaign. And we hit all the organizations, we were in all the newspapers, we were on TV, we were everywhere.
Amber: How many subscriptions did you end up getting through the campaign?
Matt: About a couple hours before New Year’s Day we got our 3,000th member. And then it bumped up to probably about 3,050 by the time that New Year’s Day hit. So we overshot the mark which was awesome. We renovated for about three months and talked to the studios and we opened.
Amber: What were the challenges you both faced being able to rescue the Met?
Keith: What we found out is that what we were trying to do was what many theater owners have told us since then is the impossible thing. And that is to convince the studios to do something different. So for over a hundred years they’ve sold tickets. And we’re trying to do memberships. We were a bit naïve, so we went to the studios and we were like, “Hey, you know we have all these people that are ready to pay unlimited at 19.95 a month and watch unlimited movies. So give us movies please!” [Laughs] And they were like, “Um, no. We don’t work that way.”
So we had 3000 people ready to watch movies and we had zero movies to show them. It was like an “Oh No” moment. A little more than two months was just talking to the studios trying to let them know that we were serious. So March 1st we opened with only three studios on board. And that was Universal, Paramount and Disney. So if a movie came out from any other studio, even though our members are paying to watch unlimited movies, we would not show that movie.
During that time Superman came and we were like, “Oh, can’t watch Superman, sorry.” So that was a struggle. We luckily were in the good graces of our own town. It took us 14 months before we got all the studios. And it was actually the very last day of our first year of operation that we showed our first 20th Century Fox movie. That was the last studio to join. And actually, some exciting news is this week we’ve finally got out of a trial phase with one of the studios that is gonna allow us to expand. And it was greatly limiting our expansion. So this was a very, very exciting week for us.
Amber: So for those who aren’t familiar, can you explain how the Netflix type monthly subscription works?
Keith: The way that it works is the basic fee is 19.95 a month, and then you have access to watching unlimited movies. So the movies are still shown at typical movie theater show times and they’re the brand new movies from the major studios the day they come out just like you’d see in the theater. But instead of buying a ticket, you’d purchase this membership. There’s also family packages. It saves you a little bit.
Matt: It’s month to month. People can cancel at anytime.
Amber: Sounds like a pretty cool system.
Keith: The members can bring guests with them and the guest can buy tickets.
Amber: So people can still buy normal tickets?
Matt: Yeah, right now if they’re with a member they can.
Amber: What have you found that’s been really great about the system? Do you think it’s going to keep spreading? Do you think this is the way that movie viewing is going to go?
Matt: First of all, we’ve noticed many, many things are going to subscriptions. I think a lot of people like that. It’s something that gives them absolute freedom to just use as much as they want without a per use fee. So what we’ve noticed is people see six times the national average of movies when they are a Movie Hero. That’s a huge jump. As opposed to maybe one movie or two movies a year, they’re seeing two movies a month. So what that does is they buy more food, so the theater does better. The studios also make more money. Basically every single branch of the entertainment theatrical business grows with Movie Heroes. We think that’s a good sign that people love it. They come out way more often. And I think the reason is because there’s no cost barrier anymore. So they try more movies that they never would have tried before.
Amber: Going back, with the restrictions starting to lift this week, do you think that it’ll make it easier to be able to expand? How far do you want to expand?
Matt: We want to expand it to struggling theaters. We want to expand it to successful theaters. The sky’s the limit for the expansion. We want to go where it’s needed and where it fits us well. That’s what we’re looking for.
Keith: It brings so much value to a theater owner and to the consumer and to the industry. We really feel like this has huge legs. And it’s something that we envision—us being a very large theater chain in the future.
Amber: Do you have any other upcoming projects?
Matt: The other thing that we’re doing that we haven’t really mentioned a lot to people yet is we also have a branch called Movie Heroes Studios. And that’s our filmmaking branch. And we’re starting to develop our own content as Netflix does. So we’re developing that as well.
I just got back from Alabama helping film a movie called Aether. It’s gonna be huge. It’s directed by Drew Hall and Horst Sarubin and it is produced by Scott Robinson. And those people are amazing because our Director of Photography was Alex Funke—he was from Lord of the Rings. The Production Designer is David L. Snyder from Blade Runner. The makeup artist is named Robin [Mathews]. She is the Oscar winning makeup artist from Dallas Buyers Club. They have this big team gathered and they just shot a pitch that they’re going to be showing to the studios with this feature script that’s a steampunk based science fiction movie. You can find them on Facebook. Their page is just Aether.
Amber: I’ll definitely look that up and spread the word a little bit. So is there anything else that you want to discuss?
Keith: As people read this, the thing that we’re looking for is to getting contact with theater owners that are in a position where they’re struggling and we can help them. And then we’re also kind of looking for some venture funding. So you know those are the kind of the things that will help our business be propelled along. And then just people being aware of what we’re doing and interested. So when it shows up in their town, they’re warmed up to the idea.
You can learn more about Matt, Keith and Movie Heroes at their website www.movieheroes.com (which is more theater based) as well as their Facebook page www.facebook.com/movieheroes You can also read about Movie Heroes Studios at www.facebook.com/movieheroesstudios.
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