For the first time in 40 years, downtown Tucson will have a first-run movie theater.
The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St., will begin showing current releases next month when Grand Cinemas takes over daily operations from the nonprofit Arizona Media Arts Center. The theater will also show independent films and will continue to host the annual Arizona International Film Festival, said Grand Cinemas managing partner Kent Edwards.
Tucson-based Grand Cinemas quietly began an extensive renovation of the theater in mid-May, weeks after Grand Cinemas closed its Crossroads 6 theaters on East Grant Road. In addition to plumbing and electrical upgrades, the $100,000 project includes a new state-of-the-art screen and seats, an expanded snack bar and a $45,000 HD digital cinema projector like the ones used by multiplex companies including Harkins and Cinemark. The theater will seat 120 people.
This will be the first time since Fox Tucson Theatre at the west end of Congress closed in 1974 that folks can go downtown to catch a movie still playing at the multiplex. Fox, once the Hollywood heartbeat of Tucson, closed after suburban malls lured people from downtown. After a multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded renovation, it reopened in 2005 as a multiuse venue that includes screenings of classic films, along with concerts and other live events.
Arizona Media Arts Center Director Giulio Scalinger opened the Screening Room in 1989 as an incubator and champion of independent filmmaking. He launched the international film festival the following year, and one of the theaters involved in the early years was Grand Cinema’s now-closed Grand View 4 on West Valencia Road. Grand Cinema has been a regular partner in the festival since 2002, hosting screenings at Crossroads through this year’s festival in April.
Scalinger said the Arizona International Film Festival, held every April for the last 24 years, has become too big of a job alongside running the theater. So after years of dancing around the idea of bringing in an outside theater operator, he and Edwards entered serious negotiations this year.
“We just felt that he supported what we were doing with independent film, and we just thought he would be a good entity,” Scalinger said.
A full-time movie theater also fits into the latest downtown resurrection. Fueled by the promise of the streetcar set to begin rolling next month, dozens of new restaurants and clubs have sprung up downtown in the past two years. A boutique hotel — the downtown area’s first since 1976 — is in the works, and a grocery store is set to open in December to meet the needs of residents who have moved into the Cadence student housing complex and other housing developments circling the area.
“This is terrific timing,” said Downtown Tucson Partnership CEO Michael Keith. “Downtown is becoming a more exciting place to be. You are going to see a whole lot of new retailers and restaurants coming in the next six months. It’s getting crazy good down here.”
“It’s going to be pretty exciting that I can hop on the streetcar from work and go down and see a movie,” said Mia Schnaible, who works at the University of Arizona and has volunteered a dozen years to do marketing and development for the Arizona International Film Festival. “All the people downtown, especially west of I-10, this will be their theater now. It is going to be the only theater on the streetcar line, and 100,000 people live (and work) within a mile of the streetcar line, so this is huge for Tucson.”
Grand Cinemas has a long-term lease with the Arizona Media Arts Center, and Edwards said he anticipates they will be downtown for the long haul.
“I think the theater is going to do well, and I hope it is supported by the community — not just people who want to go downtown on a Saturday night but people who work there and want to come in and see a movie,” he said. “There’s a lot of restaurants and there’s entertainment downtown. I think all we are going to do is complement them.”
Grand Cinemas operates one other Tucson movie house, the six-screen, discount Oracle View theater near the Tucson Mall. In April, the company ended a 13-year run at the Crossroads theaters, which will open this fall as a restaurant-theater concept called Roadhouse Cinemas.
Grand Cinemas ran the 12-screen Tower Theatres in Marana — the area’s only independently owned cineplex — for more than five years before losing its lease in spring 2013 after years of financial hardships.
“We have had a rough time,” Edwards admitted. “Our departure from Tower Theatres was humbling. I think we have learned from it and we can move forward.”