Westfield theater owner seeks a chain reaction

Westfield theater owner seeks a chain reaction

Digiplex’s Bret Marks looks beyond film to entertainment centers

Much as people might like watching movies at home, nothing quite replaces the pleasure of gathering with others at a good theater in front of a really big screen.

That’s the premise around which theater owner Brett Marks has carved a career. But with competition from Netflix, web downloads, DVDs, and deluxe home theaters — leaving largely empty theaters Monday through Thursday — a new approach was needed.

From their Westfield-based offices, Marks and his colleagues at Digiplex Destinations are developing theaters designed to draw in audiences with finely tuned offerings. Using the latest digital technology, they offer not just 2D and 3D movies but other forms of entertainment like concerts, operas, ballets, and sports events, taped or live, and potentially interactive events like conferences and auctions.

So far, they have Digiplex theaters in Westfield and Cranford in New Jersey, as well as in Bloomfield, Conn. They are planning to expand into Pennsylvania. On Dec. 20, the company, formally known as Digital Cinema Destinations Corp., announced its bid to go public, with an initial public offering of stock.

Right below the company’s Westfield headquarters is a prime example of what they do: the Rialto theater — where, until a few years ago, the Jewish Community Center of Central New Jersey held its annual Jewish film festival — which Digiplex converted to handle digital screening. Marks said he would love to host such a festival again.

Recently the Rialto hosted another movie festival — the Tribeca Road Show. The venue is also offering live broadcasts of opera and ballet performances from Lincoln Center in New York City and the Royal Opera House in London.

Marks joins a historic line of Jewish theater chain owners, including Marcus Loew, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, Sol Lesser, Sam Katz, and Barney Balaban.

Work obviously takes up a lot of time for Marks, who lives in Harrison, NY, but the father of a daughter and two sons — ages 18, 13, and nine — also coaches youth basketball at his temple and at the local JCC. He has participated in the temple’s “midnight run” to benefit the homeless in New York City, to raise funds to provide food and clothing to shelters.

But by day — and evidently quite often by night — he is absorbed in the theater business.

“I’ve always loved movies,” he told NJJN. He started out in real estate, but in the mid-1990s got into the theater business. He cofounded Clearview Cinema — participating in a theater acquisition drive that took the company from two locations and four screens to 65 locations and almost 300 screens — and later the Cinedigm Digital Cinema Corp., one of the first companies to convert theaters to digital projection.

His partner in both those ventures and in the most current is Bud Mayo, for whom the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown is named.

While the new digital technology requires a different set of skills for theater personnel, Marks said, it offers environmental benefits. Instead of trucking in the massive canisters of perishable plastic that took hours to splice and load, now the material is downloaded from satellites or comes in book-sized hard drives that take just minutes to load on digital projectors. The speed and ease give theater owners the flexibility to offer programming choices tailored to a variety of audiences in a way the traditional approach never could.

“Digital doesn’t degrade — you don’t get the lines and ‘pops’ that you get on film after a few months,” he told NJJN. “And the really beautiful thing is that it allows you to offer all this different content — for kids or empty-nesters, or whomever.”

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