Michael Pollack greets patrons Kelly and Rick Papala at Pollack Tempe Cinemas, a discount theater the redeveloper has refurbished and updated twice. (Photo by Billy Hardiman for Wrangler News)
By Joyce Coronel on September 5, 2017
It’s Friday night and Michael Pollack stands a few feet from the ticket counter, greeting patrons as they make their way to one of six screens to take in a movie in South Tempe.
Unlike most theaters, the ticket prices aren’t a whopping $9 or $10 a pop. This is Pollack Tempe Cinemas, where a ticket to see a movie costs less than a café latte at area coffee shops.
Pollack, a widely recognized real estate re-developer, is known for acquiring rundown strip centers in Chandler, Tempe, Mesa and other East Valley cities, and turning them into thriving retail hubs.
Since starting his career in 1973, he’s had a hand in more than 100 such projects and more than 10 million square feet of retail redevelopment projects. All that experience has given him an eagle eye for discerning which properties will benefit from a serious makeover.
“I can look at a project and tell pretty much whether or not it’s going to be a candidate for redevelopment,” Pollack said. “I can usually tell right away when I do a walk- through on the existing property.”
Such was the case when he purchased the plaza at McClintock and Elliot in Tempe about 15 years ago. The discount cinema on the premises was “failing miserably,” Pollack said.
“The cinema was losing a small fortune for the owner—it was exceptionally run-down at that time.”
Thus unfolded Pollack’s venture into the movie business, but through hard work and dedication to the community he has kept it not only going but thriving.
When he initially acquired the center, he thought the theater owner would remodel. After Pollack learned the owner planned to shut it down, he realized he had three choices.
Turning the space into a big-box store was one of them, but that would be a challenge due to low visibility from the street and the theater’s sloped floors. Pollack jokingly said he briefly considered a second option: inventing a new game called downhill-bowling.
“That sounded really good the night I thought it up,” Pollack chuckled. “By morning, not so much.” So he went with the third option: A complete remodel.
“Fifteen years ago I knew nothing about the movie-theater business. I knew how to buy a ticket, buy popcorn and get my seat and watch the movie,” Pollack recalled. “I said, you know what? It can’t be that difficult.”
The project turned out to be a costly one: Flooring had to be replaced plus the bathrooms and snack bar needed a complete overhaul. “You could tell time
had taken its toll on the interior of the theater,” Pollack said.
The theater became a popular destination for price-conscious movie lovers who were willing to exercise a bit of patience and wait for the films to cycle through first-run theaters before reaching Pollack Tempe Cinemas.
Facing a dilemma
About four years ago, Pollack was faced with another crossroad: Close the theater or invest approximately $1 million on upgrades.
“I could either shut it down or I could modernize it because everything in the theater business was going to digital projection,” Pollack said. “We were told directly, point blank, that within 12 months there would be no more film available.”
Between the pricey digital projectors and brand new seating, Pollack had a tough call to make. “I received hundreds of emails and letters asking me to keep the nostalgic discount theater open. The surrounding neighborhood, for several generations, had grown up with the theater and felt a strong connection to it.” Pollack said.
The theater remained, and audiences continued to line up. Although Pollack shows no sign of buyer’s remorse, he may have a slightly different view of the movie theater business today.
“Would I recommend owning a
discount cinema in the year 2017? Absolutely, positively not.” He’s received calls from people around the country wanting to know if he’d buy their old theaters. The answer, he said, is always the same: No.
“At best case, if we do everything right—everything—we can hope to break even,” Pollack said. “I don’t really do it because it’s a source of big revenue for us. It would have been nice and we wouldn’t have complained if it was actually profitable, that’s for sure.”
Instead, Pollack Tempe Cinemas has become a place where young couples, retirees and families who see no sense in spending three times as much for a movie ticket at a first-run theater, take in a film or two while they munch on popcorn and sip soda.
And while ticket prices are comparatively inexpensive ($7.50$10.50 elsewhere), Pollack said that doesn’t mean patrons should be subjected to a less-than-first-class experience.
He’s often there on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as at every employee monthly meeting, because he wants to make sure customers leave with a good feeling about their visit.
Just because the prices are low, he said, doesn’t mean the service or quality should be substandard.
“We are not about being the Beverly Hills of the East Valley shopping centers. That’s not what my brand is about,” Pollack said. “All the centers
that I renovate are designed to benefit the local community. I’m there because I want to make sure we’re giving that kind of quality service and quality product to people.”
As an example, the Safeway plaza that sits at Alma School and Guadalupe is one of dozens Pollack has renovated, which also can lead to tenants being inspired to undertake their own improvements.
Rhonda Schmitz, office manager of Alma School Animal Hospital located in the center for many years, said Pollack’s refurbishing project inspired her owners to undertake their own re-do.
The center upgrades took about six months and were completed about a year ago. Stone facades, awnings and other touches breathed new life into the center.
“It called attention to the people on the street, that’s for sure,” said Schmitz. “The buildings are now very up-to-date and clean-looking. It’s a nice place you’d want to shop at—it’s very inviting. Everybody has noticed it.”
Said Pollack: “My goal is to always make a positive difference in the projects I renovate. When I am finished with a project I want it to be something the community is as proud of as I am.”