AGAWAM – When the Agawam Cinemas closed in May 2014, the community felt its absence immediately. No local cinema meant swapping the nostalgic experience of a small theater for one with 15 screens and pricey popcorn.
Though some residents may have been content with driving further up the road for a movie, some have been harder to sway.
Enter Kimberly Wheeler.
Upon reading that the Agawam Cinemas was shutting its doors, the lifelong resident decided she needed to get involved. Despite working as an EMT instructor with no background in business, Wheeler did not hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity.
She is now the new owner of the cinema.
“I love film. It’s been a hobby and a passion of mine,” Wheeler said. “When I saw this open up, the stars lined up, and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s my avenue.’”
Wheeler threw herself into the venture and wasted no time assessing the theater’s needs. A combination of necessary improvements to the building and the need to switch to digital film projectors led Wheeler to Kickstarter, an online fundraising website that allows donors to pledge money for a cause. The money is only taken if the cause reaches its fundraising goal.
The goal for the “Save the Agawam Cinemas” campaign is $40,000, the amount needed to bridge the gap between the cost of the equipment and what Wheeler can afford.
Although Wheeler took up the project to reopen the theater on her own, she is far from alone. Wheeler has received hundreds of messages of support and donations from more than 75 backers on her Kickstarter campaign, totaling more than $8,000 already raised.
The support, she said, helps push her along an otherwise overwhelming commitment.
“It rejuvenates my willingness to really get this back up for the community, so it’s not even specifically for me. Although, it’s going to be fantastic because I’m super excited, but honestly, the community wants it and needs it just as much as I do,” Wheeler said.
Though the community had been used to the Agawam Cinemas being a second-run theater, Wheeler plans to make it first-run, meaning new movies would be available as soon as possible, not months after their premiere date.
“As much as I loved it as a second-run theater, it was frustrating to have to wait an extra month, two months, three months to see that movie you really wanted to see but to come here to see it,” Wheeler said. “I think bringing us up on the first-run circuit will help us with attendance, which help the business be sustainable, and it’s also going to alleviate the wait. Some people just don’t want to wait and they’ll go to bigger theaters, but we’re going to kind of cut that out.”
Despite the proximity of Rave Cinemas in West Springfield, Wheeler said the Agawam Cinemas appeals to viewers looking for a little extra from their theater. Yes, there will be some competition, but the personal touches will draw in their own audience, according to Wheeler.
“It’s a whole different animal what we’re dealing with in a hometown theater because we focus so much more on customer service and nostalgic atmosphere rather than a box theater where it’s just, you know, people in, people out,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler also noted the affordability of a local theater in comparison to the larger chains.
“A lot of people just don’t want to pay the big prices to go to the other theaters, so it’ll give them more entertainment on a better budget for the whole community,” Wheeler said.
Less expensive tickets will be welcomed back readily, but price is hardly what has been missed the most. Patrons want their theater and bit of history back, according to Agawam resident Lynn Quintin.
“Everyone misses it, especially people who have been here all of their lives,” Quintin said.
While the final date of the reopening is dependent on construction in the building, Wheeler is thankful for the support in the meantime. Until the doors open again for good, Wheeler is urging members of the community to maintain their enthusiasm for the project.
“We have something really special here. If we don’t tend to it, it’s going to disappear, and there’s no way to get it back,” she said. “It’s super important that we take it back now while we still can.”
If you would like to donate to “Save the Agawam Cinemas,” you can do so at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1162696934/save-the-agawam-cinemas