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Movie theater survives despite many plot twists

There was a time in America when going to the movies was a favorite pastime for people of all ages. Then, enter television, home theater systems, movie rentals and now streaming services, and the moviegoing experience can seem antiquated.

There are survivors, and Premiere Theatres in Cloquet is one of them, even after a pandemic emptied theaters for many months. Major corporations are cutting away. Cineworld is selling all of its 500-plus Regal theaters.

Despite all the dire news, Premiere manager Adam Stowell remains optimistic.

"I don't see movie theaters going away for a long time, if ever," he said.

Cloquet did not have a theater for many years after the Chief movie theater in the West End closed in the 1980s. The site of Premiere Theatres off Minnesota Highway 33 is a former grocery store. The building was owned by Stowell's grandfather. With the store space available, Rick Stowell, Adam's father, saw an opportunity for a new enterprise.

"My dad had the idea to put a movie theater in. He thought the town was big enough to support a movie theater," Adam said.

"They built a four-screen theater and opened in May of 1994. In 1996 they added two [more] screens because it was so successful," Stowell said. "Been here ever since."

Stowell is in the process of buying the theater from his dad, a plan delayed by the pandemic.

Adam said the Covid-19 pandemic was the greatest threat to the life of the theater. Even though restrictions on public gatherings subsided, people were not ready to return to sitting close to others for a couple hours at a movie. The doors were closed for 14 months. Relief came in the form of grant money from the federal government.

"There was a Save Our Stages grant that we qualified for," he said. "(Senators) Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith from Minnesota were both big proponents of it. The money was earmarked for smaller owners and helped make up for lost income. "There were also smaller grants from Carlton County and the state. That really made all the difference for us to keep the doors open," Stowell said.

Premiere Theatres has always been a first-run theater eligible to show the newest releases from the studios. "If you're not a first-run theater, it's pretty tough," Stowell said.

"We have what's called a film buyer," he said. "We're one of her busier theaters, so there isn't an issue of getting what people want to see." He said recent films such as "Avatar" and "Top Gun: Maverick" filled the theater.

There are times when the new releases aren't so popular. "The unique thing about the movie theater is you're at the mercy of what movies the film studios are making in Hollywood," Stowell said. "So, if they don't make good movies, then we're not going to succeed. Fortunately, for the most part, they do. Some years are busier than others."

Other than Adam and another full-time employee, the theater employs about two dozen high school students during the school year.

"We're fortunate. We have a reputation as a fun atmosphere to work in, and we have a lot of great high school students come through," Stowell said. "I think the average length of time someone works in a movie theater is one year, and ours is like four years."

Upgrades are important to keep the theater operational, he said. In 2010, a digital projection system was installed that eased the transfer of releases from the studios to the theater and improved projection capabilities.

"We just recently installed new luxury recliner seating," Stowell said. "That was a big, much-needed upgrade ... You lose about 60 percent of your seat count. We decided, especially after Covid, we're just going to go all in and do it right and hope we succeed."

It's one way theaters are bringing that familiar living room feel to the big-screen experience.

No one can predict the future, but Stowell said he is hopeful as more films are being made after a dearth during the pandemic.

"From the looks of it, 2023 can be one of the biggest years for movies and 2024 is supposed to be the biggest."

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