Star Cinema Grill will reopen the River Oaks Theater as a showcase for independent films

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The curtain rises on a new era for the liberated River Oaks Theatre.

Kimco Realty, the Jericho, New York-based company that owns the River Oaks Shopping Center where the theater is located, announced Wednesday that the theater will reopen as a showcase for independent art house films operated by Sugar. Land-based Star Cinema Grill, which has eight multiplexes in suburban Houston. No date has been set, but it may not open before the end of the year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner made it official during a press conference Wednesday evening in front of the theater. “What a great day for the city of Houston,” Turner said, noting that her office had been inundated with calls and letters regarding the theater. “The River Oaks Theater is open again and will be preserved for future generations.”

Star Cinema Grill’s announcement as a new tenant comes nearly a year after talks broke down during lease negotiations between former River Oaks mall owner Weingarten Realty and California movie chain Landmark. Theatres. The Art Deco venue at 2009 W. Gray, built in 1939 and the last of Houston’s vintage movie theaters still in use for its original purpose, closed on March 25, 2021, sending shockwaves through the area’s film and architectural communities.

“I wasn’t sure we would ever get to this place,” council member Abbie Kamin, whose District C includes the River Oaks Theater, said at the press conference.

While the three-screen River Oaks is unlike anything else in Star Cinema Grill’s movie portfolio – the company’s other theaters, such as the 10-screen Springwoods Theater which opened in 2019, are expansive modern multiplexes outside of the Loop – Star Cinema Grill vice president of development Jason Ostrow said the plan is to keep the Oaks River as moviegoers remember it.

“Star Cinema Grill is among the Top 10 successful movie chains. We play top 10 products, and that’s our business, and there’s not a lot of programming creativity that goes into that,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s going to be a lot more of what it was before, finding that niche content, niche events and live theatrical events in a mixed-use venue. Star Cinema Grill is more on the business side, and it will be more on the passion side.

Star Cinema Grill president and CEO Omar Khan has a particular fondness for River Oaks, Ostrow said. “He’s a local Houstonian. His family has been in film for a long, long time,” he said. “So it’s almost like a legacy project for Omar, something he can keep in his family and pass on and nurture and organize.”

“The plan is to keep the soul of the theater,” Khan said at the press conference.

1930s look, 2020s vibe

Kimco, which bought Weingarten last year, wants to turn the mall into a recreational destination.

“It’s a place where people say on a Saturday, ‘Hey, let’s go to River Oaks.’ Not necessarily “Let’s go to the movies” or “Let’s go to this restaurant or this restaurant”, but “Let’s go to River Oaks”, said Andrew Bell, vice president of leasing at Kimco. “We’re trying to do things that promote the future…(Theatre) fits very well into our overall vision for River Oaks.”

Kimco, which has a 10-year lease with renewal options with Star Cinema Grill, never intended to put another form of retail in the building or tear it down. “I never thought about it not to be a theater,” said Bell, who grew up in Atlanta and remembers the struggle to save that city’s iconic Fox Theater.

The River Oaks will remain a three-screen venue, although the remodel will include new, larger seats that will likely reduce its capacity. “The decor will make you feel like you’re back in 1930, but it’s going to feel very new and updated and fresh,” Ostrow said. “So we are designing custom seating for this facility that will only be found in River Oaks.”

The plan also includes a live stage. “We will try to find other uses in space for other programming opportunities,” Ostrow said. “These are all things that are still being chopped and planned and studied for what is actually possible in this space.”

While the movie exhibition business has suffered during the pandemic, Ostrow isn’t worried about River Oaks’ ability to draw a crowd.

“Our business at Star Cinema Grill, we’ve grown over 120% from 2019,” he said. “Now we’re seeing some parts of the demographic that haven’t fully returned to theaters yet, but most of our activity has returned, plus some.”

Star Cinema Grill, which has multiplexes in Richmond, Cypress, Spring, College Station, Vintage Park, Missouri City, Baybrook and Conroe, recently expanded beyond Texas with two locations in suburban Chicago.

“A great victory”

The result appeals to Greg Audel, a local filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood and was passing by when he noticed the commotion outside the theater. “It’s just a wonderful place to rent for special events or fundraisers because it’s a special place. It’s not just about walking into a mall theater,” he said. “You come here and you feel like you’re coming to an event.”

The Friends of the River Oaks Theatre, an activist group formed in the wake of the theater’s closure, which includes Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Bun B, are also pleased. The group had presented its own pitch to Kimco to exploit the theater.

“It’s a big win,” said Maureen McNamara, co-founder of the organization, noting that Feb. 2 marks the anniversary of the group’s first meeting. “For these guys to sincerely consider making the theater an art house, I think that’s important for the theater.”

She hopes the Friends of the River Oaks Theater can still be involved in some way.

“It’s still kind of an evolving situation because everyone is still figuring it out, but all the pieces fit together,” she said. “But it’s like when someone has half the ingredients to make a cake, and the other person has half the ingredients to make a cake… By working together, we could help make something happen. really amazing.”

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