Patrick Wilson is very familiar with cinematic heroics.
He’s battled malevolent supernatural forces in the “Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises, brought the Night Owl of “Watchmen” to the big screen, and faced off against Jason Mamoa for aquatic dominance as the villainously ambitious Ocean Master of “Aquaman.”
But here in the real world, Wilson is working to save one of the historic cinemas in his home state of New Jersey as businesses continue to reel from the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you look at, even during the pandemic, how much we have relied on Netflix and Disney+, whatever your choice is of entertainment, it’s vital, always has been,” Wilson said. “It pains me to see Broadway theaters closed, that’s how I got my start.
“So when I look at communities that I grew up in and I see the smaller theaters that are mom and pop theaters or maybe it’s a small company that runs a few of them and how much they’ve struggled and can’t stay afloat, if I can do something and put a team together of people like we have here and try to help out and try to revitalize these communities … that makes me feel like I’m doing something.”
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An Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony nominee, Wilson is a partner in Cinema Lab, a group working to purchase, remodel and re-open the historic movie theater on Main Street in Bradley Beach, most recently known as the ShowRoom Cinema Bradley Beach.
Built in 1915, it operated as the Palace Theatre and was a childhood favorite of Jack Nicholson, who grew up nearby in Neptune. It was renamed the Beach Cinema in 1976, then came a change of ownership, followed by a re-launch as the ShowRoom in 2019.
It was shuttered by the pandemic last March, with its closure along with that of the ShowRoom’s nearby Asbury Park location announced in September. Cinema Lab’s purchase of the theater from ShowRoom proprietors Michael Sodano and Nancy Sabino is not yet complete, Sodano said.
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Wilson, who lives in Montclair, and IFC Films president and Bradley Beach resident Arianna Bocco are joined in their revitalization efforts by a team that includes Cinema Lab chief executive officer Luke Parker Bowles, the nephew of Prince Charles’ wife Camilla and former New York chair of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Cinema Lab, in a news release, said it plans to re-open several historic New Jersey theaters, starting with the former ShowRoom’s reinvention as The Bradley. Wilson said there is also a desire to restore the former Bellevue Theater in Montclair, which was built in 1922 and closed in 2017.
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“I believe in the power of theater. I believe in the power of stage. I believe in the power of being in a communal environment to watch a movie. There’s nothing like it,” said Wilson. “I think our experience will change, clearly, by the pandemic, and it has and it will continue to.
“But if you have the opportunity to be on the forefront of where it’s going, even technologically where it’s all done on your phone — (from) the tickets to the seats to ordering things — and then providing a safe environment, whether it’s the seating and how far the seats are apart and how big the theater is. If you can have a hand in shaping how we are going to view movies … you take that opportunity. And that’s what I’m doing.”
To that end, Cinema Lab plans to launch The Bradley this summer with the former one-screen theater converted to a three-auditorium space with a stage for live events, concessions with alcohol service and an updated lobby lounge.
“Nobody gets into this, certainly I’m not, to make money,” Wilson said. “We are in this for the passion (for) what we do. But you have to have a sustainable business (and) I think the idea of a boutique theater where yes, you can have a drink and you can have a reserved seat and hopefully, depending on the technology, you can order things from your phone — all those kind of things … are the way theaters are going. Even pre-COVID I would argue that (was the case).”
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The Cinema Lab team, working to raise funds to help cover part of the remodeling and purchasing costs, launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign on Jan. 12 that achieved its $50,000 goal in less than a week.
Backer rewards include tickets to upcoming screenings, donors’ names displayed on seats or a backer wall, and invitations to the theater’s grand opening.
The Kickstarter route, Wilson said, “just seemed like a smart thing to do for community involvement, and (because of) the fact that it’s not going to take a tremendous amount of money, if that makes sense. Because It’s a different vibe. If we needed to raise multi-million dollars then Kickstarter’s probably not the way to go, but this is a different story.”
More than a century since its opening, the cinema’s significance to the local community is self-evident, as Wilson explained.
“I can see the importance of that theater,” said Wilson. “You just have to step foot in Bradley Beach and go, ‘OK, OK.’ I mean, I can run all the numbers and see where the closest AMC is or whatever, but I kind of don’t care about that.
“I like to look at the (downtown) strip. I look at Vic’s (restaurant) across the street and I go, ‘OK, let’s make this a hotspot.’ When you see the construction going on down the block you’re like, ‘OK, let’s do it. Let’s be on the side that’s moving forward in either bringing back some life or bringing some new life.’ ”
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.