Think Out Loud

Running independent, historic movie theaters in a post-pandemic Oregon

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
June 5, 2023 4:25 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, June 5

The movie theater industry is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ticket sales are rebounding and onlookers have high hopes for summer blockbusters. We hear from Thomas Baham, owner of the Rio Theater in Sweet Home. He shares more on what movie theaters mean to smaller communities in Oregon, his plan to reopen the only movie theater in Silverton and how the industry is faring in Oregon.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Thomas Baham and his wife bought the Rio Theater in Sweet Home about a decade ago. It was an interesting time to get into the movie theater business with streaming services, taking up more and more of our screen time. Then came COVID. But now the Bahams are doubling down on their bet. They recently bought the Palace Theater in Silverton and they hope to open it in a month or so after some renovations. Thomas Baham joins us now to talk about the movie business in 2023. Thanks very much for coming in.

Thomas Baham: Thanks for having me, Dave.

Miller: Why did you want to get into this business, this movie theater business, in the first place about a decade ago?

Baham: I looked at it as …how could I say it – like a retirement plan? We’re all gonna work until we die. I wanted to have some type of place to go to where I didn’t have to be outside digging ditches or anything else at the age of 90 years old.

Miller: So this was a long term plan.

Baham: This is long term, yes.

Miller: Wait, how old were you? 10 years ago?

Baham: Oh, gosh, 29? [Laughing] No… 40. What was I? 44.

Miller: Ok. Sorry, that was an odd way to ask because….

Baham: No…no…

Miller: So, in your mid forties, you were thinking about a retirement plan business?

Baham: Yes.

Miller: Huh. Ok. There are a lot of things you could do that aren’t digging ditches. But movie theaters are a very specific business.

Baham: Yes, I’m more of a, I guess you would call, a people person. I love to have people come in. Everybody’s excited. Everybody loves to watch a show... a good show. Even if it’s a bad show, they come out and we talk about it and it’s just a verbal thing.

People are all together and it’s a good time. I always consider myself similar to a bartender. I get to know everybody in town. They come to see me and we talk about it. Talk about anything, families, life, everything.

Miller: What was the Rio, the theater, in Sweet Home, like when you bought it nine, 10 years ago?

Baham: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. It was rundown. It was very sticky, very smelly.

Miller: The floor was sticky?

Baham: Oh, yeah. Everything was sticky.

Miller: When you said that, I felt it in my feet. That feeling of having the sticky floor, sort of stick to the rubber of your sneakers in a movie.

Baham: It is very hard to keep a floor clean with soda, candy, Icees, ice cream, whatever it may be.

Miller: I believe that.

Baham: If you don’t clean it daily, after every show - I mean, we’re talking good cleaning and that’s what we do. Now, we don’t have sticky floors. If you find it, please let me know.

Miller: So do you remember that, when you first walked through it, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll buy it?’

Baham: Yes, I looked at it a few years before I purchased it and the price range wasn’t there yet. I wasn’t in the market, I guess, to be financially able to do it yet. So once I was able to look at my finances and look at the potential of it, I said, ‘Let’s gamble on this and see what we could do,’ because I could see some garbage and make it a beautiful place.

Miller: But I imagine you didn’t just clean the floors…

Baham: No, no.

Miller: What else did you do?

Baham: We basically remodeled the whole thing. We remodeled all the bathrooms, made them ADA compliant, replaced curtains. The whole place was old. I mean, it’s an old building, 1930s building. So we had a lot of leaks. It’s an old concrete block building. So it leaked everywhere and where the leaks come in, they hit the insulation, they hit the curtains. Then you got the smells of mold. That’s the first thing I saw or smelt and the audio was horrible. So, bottom line is, I replaced [the] ground floor all the way up.

Miller: And seats seem like one of the biggest physical changes in movie theaters. I mean, in the past, people were sort of packed in like sardines.

Baham: …like sardines…

Miller: Now people, what do they expect?

Baham: Now, what I’ve seen is a gamble in Sweet Home, bringing in recliners. I did not bring in recliners to the big theater. I actually purchased the building next door to me and created another, a second screen that’s more of a VIP room: dinner theater, stadium seating, and all recliners. You got two first rows for general admission, for the kids usually.

Miller: But that means you can pack in fewer seats, right?

Baham: You lose a lot more seats. Like the Palace that I just bought. They have 380 seats. By the time I’m finished, we’re gonna be down to about 180.

Miller: Huh. Which it’s a very specific business decision…

Baham: Yeah.

Miller: …but if you’re gonna be doing this for the new theater – and we’ll get to that in a second – you think it makes sense,...

Baham: It can sell more tickets!

Miller: But people are more likely to buy the tickets?

Baham: Yes, people come in. They want the comfort. They like the service. Like in our second theater, there’s touchscreens where you come in you just sit down and you hit the screen, you order your food, and we bring it to you. So same thing in the other theater. We don’t have the touch screens but when you order your food, we bring it to you. So general admission, they just grab their food when they’re there. We do a lot of hot foods now that we’ve never done before. And dinners, people love the dinners. The recliner chairs are the way to - I mean, it was a huge gamble and it worked and they sell out almost every show. So at least the recliners do.

Miller: Ok. So that’s the 10 year experiment. Which seems like clearly, as I mentioned, if you’re doubling down, things are working for you.

Let’s turn to the Silverton Theater. When did you first hear that it was for sale?

Baham: What is this… about six months ago? Eight months ago? Somewhere around there? I got a couple of notifications saying, ‘Hey, it’s for sale, are you interested?’

Miller: Did you immediately think, ‘I wanna do this?’

Baham: I immediately said, ‘No.’

[Mutual laughter]

I said no.

Miller: Well, it was nice having you on. Have a good day.

Baham: Yeah, exactly…

Miller: …but you said eventually, that...

Baham: Yes. Yes, I finally did. I spoke with the landowner, she wanted to lease it. With the amount of work that it needed, I don’t want to put my money into something that I don’t own. So I worked with her and we got an agreement, price for the whole building.

Miller: And you were ready to do the whole thing again. Some people go through a huge remodel, say, for a home, a residence, and then they say, I’m glad I did it. I’m never going to do that again. You said the opposite.

Baham: Right. Some days I go, ‘Man, what did I do?’ But I see the future of it. I see the potential of this building. The Palace Theater is gorgeous. I’m gonna leave the old flare. We’re just gonna upgrade it, we’re just gonna update it. Make sure you have great audio, great video seats. They’re gonna be four to six rows of recliners. We’re doing stadium seating in there. It was sardine cans, like you were saying, with all those chairs tucked in. You couldn’t even sit without hitting your knees with the person in front of you. So we’re expanding every row to have at least four feet so that you could get up and down, move like you want to. You need comfort, people want comfort. We still wanna fill the house but we’ll have more shows, that’s how I look at it. You could add more shows to get more people in if you need to.


Miller: What lessons did you learn from the Sweet Home Theater that you’re applying to the new theater you’ve taken on?

Baham: Well, what did I learn?

Miller: Yeah.

Baham: Take your time, don’t over budget or don’t overspend. I’m kind of frugal with my money. I know where my money is going. I look for the deals. That’s the only way you’re gonna be able to succeed mostly in this business.

It hasn’t taken off like before 2019. Sweet Home, the Rio Theater, I think we’re at the numbers that we were before COVID. We have a lot more people in town that I haven’t seen before, I haven’t met before. So it’s kind of exciting to see all these new faces come through. A lot of people from out of town [come] to Sweet Home now just for our theater, for the recliners, for the experience, for the everything. So I just can’t over overdo it. I’m gonna make it nice and Silverton, I was hoping to be done by July… it’s looking probably another two months at least.

Miller: Is that a big deal? I mean, what you just described is maybe even worst case, all of summer blockbuster season.

Baham: All summer blockbuster movies, we will miss.

Miller: It’s like being a liquor store that misses the holiday, I’ve learned. I mean, I don’t know why…

[Mutual laughter]

…I never learned this. I know that Christmas and Thanksgiving are big deals for liquor stores, but I imagine summer is a big deal for movie theaters?

Baham: It is. But, see Silverton, I don’t know about yet. Sweet Home as you know, it’s a destination for lakes, hikes, mountains. Summertime is our worst time of year…

Miller: Because people are doing other things?

Baham: People are doing other things. When the sun’s out, we lose half of our people. It’s kind of annoying. But it’s like go outside, but usually fall and winter is our best time of the year – for Sweet Home; Silverton, I don’t know. I haven’t opened yet. I’m gonna have to do trial and error, but I don’t wanna open Silverton halfway. I need it done correctly. I want the flow to be right. I want people to walk in and go, ‘Wow!’

Miller: The ‘flow.’ What’s the flow?

Baham: I’m talking the flow as the concession stand was never built right in that place. You go into a lobby that’s half the size of this room, it’s very small and you’re bottlenecked. Everybody’s coming in and it’s just bottleneck. So just like I did [in] the Rio, I created a new concession stand pushed into the theater and we’re able to do a line so that you could get into the theater and get out of the concession stand quickly with your food.

Miller: How important are concessions for your business?

Baham: It’s 100%...I won’t say 100%. It’s most of our income.

Miller: Wow. So, you mean the tickets just pay for overhead or what you give to the studios and if you’re gonna make money, someone needs to buy popcorn.

Baham: You have to buy popcorn. Sneaking the food, bringing the water Hydro-flask. It’s been tough. Everybody wants water. I go, ‘You know what? I sell water, but it’s cheap. It’s only two bucks.’ Or if you’re really demand to bring in your Hydro-flask and just have it empty and we’ll fill it up with tap water for you.

Miller: Does that mean like TSA, you have to monitor people’s water bottles?

Baham: No, no, I don’t find it that much. I usually just say, ‘Hey, just fyi, next time if you don’t mind not bringing it in,’ that our concessions [are] where we keep the doors open, we need the concessions. That’s why you gotta make the concessions appealing and easy to get to and fast to go through.

Miller: It seems like your biggest competitor is not another theater. I mean, you’re the only theaters in these two places, right? It’s nearly limitless entertainment at home. Your nearest competitor is people just not going out.

Baham: It is.

Miller: So how do you get people out?

Baham: Well, we gotta rely on the studios and we appreciate the studios bringing out some good movies and this year has some great movies coming out and people are coming back to the movie theater. I mean, I’ve noticed people wanna be out with other people. They wanna hang out with other people, they wanna hear people laugh, and they wanna hear people cry. They want to talk about it after the movie. It’s a social event. They just wanna come in not think of anything but what’s in front of the screen, if it’s bad or good, they just want to enjoy the popcorn and drinks and just watch it. I mean, it’s an experience. How can I say it? The streaming is killing us. The one rule I’ve done is if the studios decide to stream a movie on the day that they open a theater, I won’t bring it in. I don’t care how big a movie it is. I will not bring it in.

Miller: That’s an experiment that some have been trying in recent years. Simultaneous opening…

Baham: Yeah.

Miller: …you can watch at home or watch it in your theater.

Baham: Exactly. I think the studios are finally seeing, ‘We need the theaters,’ because that’s where the money’s at. They’re getting a good chunk of change from us. So, streaming it is not the best route for them. But some of them, if they start bombing or whatever, they’ll throw it in streaming the next week. That’s what’s hurting.

It’s hurting the theaters when people come up and go, ‘Why would I watch that? You know, I can watch it next week on Netflix.’ It’s like well, we’re just trying to stay open.

Miller: How do you decide what’s going to be a good movie for your audiences? I mean, as you said, this is it. You’re so reliant on what Hollywood is going to create to what you can show. What’s the best kind of movie for your theaters?

Baham: Well, Sweet Home is more of an action packed. Marvel, Star Wars, sci-fi in a way, but it’s changing. Like, I don’t know, it’s a luck of the draw…

Miller: At this point, you don’t have a great sense for what’s gonna work?

Baham: Well, it’s changing. Since COVID, half the people that are coming in are new people from out of town.

Miller: So you don’t know their tastes yet.

Baham: Not yet.

Miller: They might like more romantic comedies and less Marvel.

Baham: Exactly. But we’ll still bring in the Marvel because we got a big calling for it and bring in more romantic comedy, that’s why I bought the theater… or not theater. I bought the building next door to have a second screen. So you could have two different genres of movies. So we could have a romantic comedy here and Marvel or whatever it may be over on the other one.

Miller: So we just have about a minute left. But what has inflation meant for you, for your operation?

Baham: For us, it’s trying to determine how much to charge people. We’re pretty cheap. We’re $5 tickets to get in, $10 for the recliners, for matinee and $7 and $12.

Miller: How much has popcorn increased in terms of your costs?

Baham: Four times –! The oil. I mean, we’re going from $24 a box, we’re paying $180 a box for the same exact…

Miller: But you can’t quadruple the price of popcorn.

Baham: We can’t. So…

Miller: Can you double it?

Baham: No, because then people won’t buy it. So what I do is keep my prices low to get them in the door and do combo packs, stuff like that. So we’re still lower than the big chains, Regal and AMCs.

Miller: But it’s squeezing prices…

Baham: It’s squeezing…

Miller:  …where you can make your profits.

Baham:  Exactly. Our profits are not as much as they were. But I’m watching. Hopefully we’ll come back.

Miller: What’s the movie you’re most excited about this summer?

Baham: This summer? Wow. So...

Miller: I mean, it’s …

Baham: …the summer’s here, I’ve been doing construction...

Miller: I’m not the only one to tell you that.

Baham: I’m a what is that? Gosh, ‘Indiana Jones’ is coming out. I hope they don’t bomb it. I hope it’s a good movie. And I’m a ‘Transformer’ guy. I love robots that break things. So that’s my two.

Miller: All right, Thomas Baham. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Baham: Thanks very much.

Miller: Thank you. Thomas Baham is the owner of the Rio and now the Palace Theatre; The Palace Theatre is in Sweet Home and in Silverton.

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