By M.V. Moorhead
Before owning and operating a movie theater, I knew very little about the movie theater business,” says Michael Pollack.
Like most moviegoers he knew how to buy a ticket; he knew how to buy a box of popcorn; how to sit back and enjoy the lights and sounds of the big screen coming to life before his eyes—which amounts to limited experience with which to run a neighborhood discount theater.
Even so, back around 2000, Pollack, a well-known area real estate developer and philanthropist, decided to try his hand as a movie exhibitor.
A decade and a half later, his theater is an East Valley institution.
Partly, of course, this is because you can still see a movie there for just $3—a good deal if you’re going by yourself and a really good deal if you’re taking a date, or maybe a family of four or five, and you’d like to buy some popcorn and drinks.
But the appeal of Tempe Cinema isn’t just the price. No movie theater in the Valley is as offbeat, as much fun to visit, as Tempe Cinema, regardless of what’s playing.
The lobby of Tempe Cinema is a rotating mini-museum of wacky pop-culture exhibits, where visitors can see full sized figures of superheroes, aliens, Tolkien warriors or The Blues Brothers.
“I am always trying to add to the ambience by acquiring new pieces, changing out existing displays, and adding new characters brought to life by today’s cinematographers,” said Pollack.
These figures are the tip of the iceberg of Pollack’s immense museum of three-dimensional advertising figures, housed, along with collections of antique slot machines and other fascinating artifacts, in several private galleries in his Mesa offices. This jaw-dropping collection must surely be among the finest of its kind in the world.
During the holiday season there’s also a light show—“We hired a lighting designer who had done some work for Disney. There’s half a million lights, with animations everywhere.” Santa hangs out in the lobby, available for photos.
Because of this showmanship, Tempe Cinema has the sort of colorful, crazy atmosphere that makes movie going magical, especially for a kid. It makes for an antidote to the dreary functionality of many discount theaters, or even to the slick décor of many first-run houses.
“It’s all about an experience, it’s all about fun,” explains Pollack. “It’s all about making people feel like they’re home.”
It’s become something of a second home for Pollack and his wife Cheryl, too, who often spend their weekends watching movies or interacting with visitors.
“Now I do know how to sell you a ticket,” says Pollack, “and I can make popcorn. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
There was already a discount theater in the strip mall on the southeast corner of McClintock and Elliot back when Pollack first acquired the property.
“We were buying the shopping center, and while we were in escrow, we found out that the theater was about to close.”
Pollack’s first lesson in the movie theater business is that movie theaters have sloped floors. “With 25,000 feet of sloped floors, you have a situation. What are you going to do with it?”
To level the floors would have required pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into a property for which, as Pollack notes, “I might still not have had a tenant.”
Pollack got creative.
“One night I had an idea.“It seemed like a great idea—downhill bowling! The next morning it didn’t seem like such a good idea.”
In the end, he says, especially after hearing from local people who didn’t want to see the theater close, Pollack decided to take a deep breath and try to run it himself, and Pollack Tempe Cinemas was born, or rather re-born.
More recently it’s gone through yet another re-vitalization. In 2014 Pollack invested about a million dollars in new digital projectors, new seats and other upgrades.
“I don’t believe we should ever sacrifice quality for price,” says Pollack.
“I’m going to give the visitors to my theater quality in everything for less.”
Even though Pollack Tempe Cinema isn’t, in itself, Pollack’s most lucrative business venture, its continued operation has business advantages, providing an anchor for a plaza that has become a lively destination, with businesses ranging from a top-notch Mexican restaurant (La Casa de Juana) to a comic book store, Thai and Italian food, desserts, etc., and more.
“If I had to rely on the movie income from the theater to eat, I’d be very thin,” admits Pollack, a San Jose native who specializes in refurbishing run-down old strip malls into snazzy new properties. “But none of my projects are about the money. It’s about making a positive difference in the community.”