Growing up in Searcy, during the '90s and the '00s, there really weren't too many outlets for entertainment.
The vast majority of townies would spend their weekends, decked out in black and red, at a Lions' football or basketball game. The cool kids wasted time parking and shooting the breeze in the very back of Walmart's parking lot. The rebellious kids would cruise their parents' cars back and forth on now nonexistent backroads 'til sunrise. Pretty much your average Arkansas town, back in the day. But for us few young cinephiles, self-proclaimed movie nerds, we would spend Friday night aimlessly wandering the aisles of the ever-rotating video rental stores (Premier Video, Hastings and Movie Gallery) for hours, or we'd hit up the local theater to catch the newest releases.
At that time, there were only two options in Searcy when it came to theaters. You could head downtown to the corner of Race and Spring to the old -- and I mean old, 1920s old -- Rialto Theater. In the '90s, before it was renovated, the Rialto was rather run-down. It had the world's most uncomfortable seats, painful enough that they would drive you to go see a chiropractor. Plus, the building had this overwhelming odor of dust and mold that would burn your nostrils. The other, much more pleasant option, was the Searcy Cinema 5, which has now become known as the Searcy 8 VIP Cinema.
The owner of the Searcy Cinema was always an enigma, a mysterious entity, to my friends and me. It seemed like every week he had a different hot rod, a new slick car parked out front of the cinema. As I got older, I realized that the same man also owned Market Street Cinema in Little Rock, which was one of my favorite hangouts because it was the only theater in the state that would show indie and arthouse films. They would even have cool movie-themed events there, like special screenings of Tommy Wiseau's "The Room." One time they even had a screening of the documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," followed by a concert by the actual band Anvil.
Finally, after all these years, I get to sit down with this human enigma, Matt Smith, who is opening a new theater in Hot Springs later this month.
AT: You have theaters all over the state, from Little Rock to Batesville to Searcy. And you're about to open another one in Hot Springs, right?
MS: So I had purchased a theater in Hot Springs a few years ago. Remodeled that theater, put in stadium seating, luxury leather electric recliners with tables, dolby digital sound, big screens, new parking lot. And the Hot Springs customers really responded well, came to the theater, and watched movies with us. It's been a great town to do business in. So when the other theater in Hot Springs closed, it was an AMC, there was an opportunity there, so I seized on that opportunity. And now I have the eight screens and the 10 screens [at Central City] in Hot Springs, which will open May 26. So I'll have 18 screens there, and can offer a full variety of motion pictures.
AT: Will you be showing the same movies at both theaters?
MS: The two theaters will not have the same movies. At the eight-screen [theater], we'll have your standard, first-run, Hollywood major motion pictures all the time, 365 days a year. At the 10-screen [theater], we'll have some of those, but we'll also have some cool independent, art, foreign, and documentary films. We want to do a variety of films. You know here, at the Riverdale 10, we'll open three or four Hollywood releases every week. So we're pushing 150 plus different titles through this theater. But in addition to that, we run Fathom Events, we have a film series with Arkansas Times and Film Quotes Films, and we have a running classic film series with The Dave Elswick Show. And I'd like to bring some of these things to Hot Springs.
AT: One of the big differences that I see between your theaters and the big chain theaters is having these special events. I recall at your old Market Street location, you would have special screenings of "The Room" where people would throw plastic forks at the screen. You don't really see that at the big theaters.
MS: And don't forget we still do "Rocky Horror" every year. I guess these big chains don't like people throwing props all over their floors. But it's worked for me to put the emphasis on the customer and make the small-town movie-going experience very important. When it's time to put in new sound, we put in new sound. When it's time to put in new seats, we do that. We're paying attention. And I think the huge companies struggle with that, because they are so large and don't make that investment.
AT: During covid-19, a lot of critics were saying that the death of the theater was just around the corner. But you have managed to not only stay in business, but thrive. So looking forward into the deep future, what do you think is in store for the future of cinemas?
MS: Cinemas are still going to be around, because you're never going to have that experience at home. Now, what technical advances will we have? What will come about to create that experience? I have no idea. That's the multi-billion-dollar question. But it's coming and it's going to be extraordinary.
Smith's newest theater, the Central City 10 VIP Cinema, is set to open May 26 at 909 Higdon Ferry Road in Hot Springs. You can find more information about the new theater by going to CentralCity10.com.