John Watzke remembers standing in a long line back in the late 1970s to see the action comedy film Smokey and The Bandit at the movie theater in Waveland.
He’s hoping the public response is as enthusiastic when he and his brother Charles reopen the cinema they bought last year and are working to restore from post-Katrina neglect and vandalism.
“We will give them the best theater they can have there and the best movies at the lowest prices with the most reasonable concession prices in the state of Mississippi,” he said. “Whether people come again, I don’t know.”
The Watzke brothers have spent their lives in the movie theater business. Their grandfather worked as a movie projectionist starting in 1913 and their father followed. John and Charles did stints working in the projection booth before taking a break from the industry. After moving from Bay St. Louis to Ocala, Fla., after Katrina, John Watzke along with his brother took over a deserted drive-in and renovated it. It’s one of the very few drive-ins in the country today, he said. They went on to buy and renovate a few more movie theaters for themselves and other owners.
In September 2013, they bought the old Choctaw Cinema in Waveland, which was heavily damaged by Katrina. The building got a modest cleaning before reopening but the business never recovered after the storm, Watzke said. Vandals destroyed what was left of the interior of the theater and the Watzkes are having to replace everything.
“Vandals did more damage than anything,” he said. They kicked holes in the walls, broke windows and destroyed the bathrooms.”
The Watzkes are in the process of buying seats from a Florida multiplex that’s closing to install in Waveland.
“It’s good stuff,” Watzke said of the high back seats and other items. “As the owner closes one screen, we’ll take everything out of it and put it in Mississippi.”
The four renovated auditoriums each will have a different theme, including one featuring Mardi Gras. Three will have the high back seats and one will be a dine-in setting with tables that will offer pizza, burgers and sandwiches. Watzke promises “a family complex,” complete with video games for the kids.
The owners will spend about $200,000 to renovate the theater, including adding new digital projection equipment in each auditorium that costs around $50,000 each.
“Before it’s all over, we’ll put about a half a million in it,” he said.
The timing on the completion of the renovation is still up in the air, Watzke said, but he promises to hold to high standards.
“We will not open until it’s right,” he said.
Watzke promises cheaper ticket and concession prices than those at the large theater chains. He said their Florida walk-in cinemas charge $6 for adults for new movies, compared to the nearby chain that gets $9.75.
“The film companies get most of the box office,” he said. “We make money in our concession stands.” But, he said, “We will keep concessions as low as possible, about half what the large chain theaters do.”
Soft drinks will go for $2.50 or $3.50, compared to $5 to $7.
The Watzkes can hold prices down, he said, because they do all their own renovations and equipment maintenance in house.
“Charlie is the booking agent and I do other paperwork and marketing in house. We cut out the middle man so we keep overhead low.”