Primary cheerleader talks elevator pitches, kharma, and rules.
Like a lot of patrons of the old Parkway Theater, J Moses Ceaser was more than a little upset when the movie house—a family-friendly mecca on Park Boulevard that screened an eclectic array of second-run films while also serving up beer, wine, and food in a casual atmosphere that was even baby friendly—closed in 2009 after a doomed expansion into El Cerrito. Ceaser was so passionate about the community-center vibe of the old place that he spearheaded a move to reopen it. He ultimately convinced 56 investors to pony up the cash to reestablish the second-run, indie house in a converted glass factory in Oakland’s Uptown nabe last year. Complete with funky seating arrangements and a cafe serving topnotch burgers, pizza, beer, wine, and other munchies, The New Parkway is as charming as the old one.
Paul Kilduff: Opening up a theater? Isn’t that kind of like opening up a shoe store in today’s non-brick-and-mortar world? You’re competing against the Internet?
J Moses Ceaser: My investors might have had that question going in. I never saw this so much a movie theater as a community center. We happen to be a space where people watch movies, but we are also a space where people come for drinks, come for food. And so I think that we offer a lot more than a movie theater, and I think that even though folks can get movies on their TV screens or computers or even their phones much sooner than they used to be able to in the past, it has not undercut the movie business. People are still going out to movies, and I think that what’s behind that is that folks want to see movies in a community. They want to be able to see it in a space where they can really escape from whatever they would be doing otherwise and really get immersed in the movie experience and then hopefully share that experience with someone else or talk about the movie afterwards.
PK: What was your elevator pitch to investors?
JMC: I think that had the success of this business had been predicated upon an elevator speech, I’m not sure that we would have made this happen. Most of the people who are investors were folks who loved the old Parkway Theater like me. They were sad when the theater closed [and] thought that when they looked over the numbers, and realized that the theater was making money, realized you know what? There’s no reason why this is not coming back to life, and I think that’s been borne out by the relatively modest success of the theater in its first year.
PK: So nobody is expecting to make a killing with this?
JMC: No. In fact, I think for a lot of people, their return on investment was seeing the movie theater opened and being able to come out and watch movies, because each investor gets a free lifetime pass. For most of our investors, this is the only investment they have that they can actually go and touch. I think for a lot of people, myself included, making money is probably number five or six on the list of priorities.
PK: Do people bring in their own meal, figuring everybody’s eating here anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem?
JMC: Sure. Sometimes people want to bring in their own food, or they have dietary restrictions that they think we will not have the capacity to meet, which is generally not the case. We have a very flexible kitchen staff in that regard, and we’re certainly open to most or all dietary restrictions. Sometimes people contact us. They say we want to bring this in; we want to bring that in. It’s not something that we encourage, but it’s something that happens occasionally, and we roll with it. … People realize it’s a comfortable place to go eat and drink, and we hope that they will eat and drink from our bar and our restaurant, but we’re not kicking people out if they bring their own stuff.
PK: What if people bring in their own cooking implements or camp stove to actually cook something?
JMC: That’s probably going to have a lot of problems with the fire department. I’m not sure if anyone has tried that yet, but that would be novel. Right, that would be tricky. I wonder if anyone’s cooked up any drugs or anything like that. Either one of those cooking formats would get you kicked out pretty fast.
PK: It’s a pretty hang-loose place, but there are some limits. We’re establishing that.
JMC: We want to make sure that things feel casual, but that there are enough guidelines in place so that the experience is wonderful for everyone.
PK: Would you say that a difference between the old Parkway and what you’re doing now is that there seems to be more film festival and indie stuff instead of second-run or delayed movies?
JMC: We are probably doing a little bit less second-run, but second-run is absolutely our bread and butter, and so if our second-run doesn’t do well, then we’re not going to do well. I think the reason that we’ve been a little bit more successful with festivals and special events is that we’re a lot closer to public transportation, and we definitely have a more central location than the old theater did, which was kind off the beaten track a little bit. One of the things that we are really proud of is every Wednesday night we have what’s called “kharma cinema night,” where folks pay whatever they want for their movie tickets, and 20 percent goes to a local nonprofit, and the nonprofits change each month. But it’s a really nice way for folks to say, you know what? I want to have a discount ticket and have a significant chunk of the money go to local nonprofits.
PK: Did you know that Oakland’s most famous movie star, Clint Eastwood, was an employee of the Parkway Theater?
JMC: I didn’t know that. I have met the folks who were very likely the owners of the theater at the time in the late ’50s or early ’60s. Actually changed it from a single-screen theater to a duplex.
PK: Clint could have been making popcorn and getting people colas or whatever. Maybe that’s a potential film festival for the Parkway. Pay homage to Clint having worked there. What do you think?
JMC: Maybe he would show up. Maybe we can do a Tom Hanks film festival, and he can drop by. I’ve run in to lots of his graduating classmates from Skyline High School, and they’ve said every time you do a Tom Hanks movie, we want to come out and have a reunion party.
PK: Did you know that I worked at the Parkway Theater as well?
JMC: I did not know that. What was your job there?
PK: I was a jack of all trades.
JMC: As we all have to be in the movie business.
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