Locally Owned Aksarben Cinema Takes a Bow 7/2/15 07/02/15 11:01:39 PM
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Bill Barstow and his daughter Andrea work together along with the rest of the family to make Main Street Theatres and Aksarben Cinema a success. – Photo by Jordan Green
Locally Owned Aksarben Cinema Takes a Bow
As Chamber’s Small Business of the Month
By Dan McCann
The Daily Record
Dinosaurs wreaking havoc. A band of superheroes fighting to prevent it. Emotions on full animated display. It’s just another day at the office for Bill and Colleen Barstow, owners of Aksarben Cinema, one of the last locally-owned and operated theatres in the metro, and the Greater Omaha Chamber’s July Small Business of the Month.
“We have customers who want to know which of the chains we’re affiliated with, and we have to explain to them that we’re a ‘Bill and Colleen Barstow’ theatre. Some will actually argue with us,” said Bill Barstow. “It’s kind of a foreign concept these days, that a big commercial theatre would be family-owned.”
The “family” aspect of the family business also includes daughters Andrea, marketing director, and Amy, who assists in the front office; and son, Michael, who is involved in marketing as well.
“The family’s been involved from the beginning. It’s the only way we know how to do it,” Bill Barstow said.
Under the umbrella of Main Street Theatres Inc., the Barstows own eight theatres in Nebraska and Iowa, the first of which was a single-screen theatre in Plattsmouth. Aksarben Cinema opened in 2010, five years after developers first raised the prospect of bringing a Barstow-owned theatre to a yet-to-be-constructed, mixed-use urban concept called Aksarben Village.
“Bill came in and educated me on what’s possible,” said John Hughes, president of Magnum Development Corp., Aksarben Village’s Zone 5 (entertainment zone) developer. “Bill said, ‘I need 12 screens. I’ll live with 10. I won’t live with 8.’ And we have 10 screens.”
“I came in with a lot of enthusiasm and passion,” Bill Barstow recalled. “We thought, ‘what if we made the most cutting-edge theatre not only in Omaha, not only in Nebraska, but maybe in the United States?’ We were going to go way out on the edge of this digital revolution.”
That vision was fully realized. Aksarben Cinema – with its single master-control room – offers a total digital movie-going experience for up to 1,700 people, in addition to RealD 3D technology, the largest 3D auditorium in Omaha, and a full-service bar.
“We were the first theatre to have a bar and really embrace it as a true gathering space where people could have fun and interact,” Bill Barstow said.
Despite all the cool enhancements, the Barstow family’s guiding principle is simple: treat moviegoers as if they are guests in the family living room.
“We’re entertaining people how we want to be entertained. That still drives our customer service and our culture,” Barstow said. “We’ve had millions of admissions into our place but, to this day, we get nervous every time a new movie is opening – just wanting to make sure everything goes right.”
That commitment to the ultimate guest experience helped drive Aksarben Cinema’s Small Business of the Month Award, an honor that comes on the heels of several huge summer openings. Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out and Jurassic World have all brought the crowds – and the creativity.
“We try to make every event an event,” Bill Barstow said.
Hughes added, “It’s always fresh around here.”
For the opening of Jurassic World, Aksarben Cinema had local artist Amanda Shannon create a metallic-looking replica of the “real” gate to Jurassic World. The Barstows also arranged a special visit by Dinky the Raptor, an 8-foot, human-powered predator.
“Opening night of Jurassic World was probably one of my favorite days since this theatre opened,” said Andrea Barstow.
“Every person wanted to be happy and we got to share that with everyone,” Bill Barstow added.
Shared experiences at the theatre extend beyond fun – to poignant, on occasion. Aksarben Cinema, in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, hosted free screenings of the movie Bully for students, parents and educators; held special showings of Selma on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and celebrated the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen in conjunction with the movie Red Tails.
“Red Tails was lighting in a bottle,” Bill Barstow recalled. “It ended up being the most amazing thing.”
Escorted by Offutt Air Force Base personnel, three surviving Tuskegee Airmen walked a red carpet into the theatre, cheered along the way by a throng of people.
“There were 400 people coming to that event, but we had another 500-600 people getting out of their movies at the same time. They lined up organically – 10 to 15 people deep – along this red carpet, pulled out their cell phones and started taking pictures. That was intoxicating,” said Barstow, who served at Offutt before his 1988 Air Force retirement and entry into the movie theatre business.
He said the Chamber’s award is an endorsement that the theatre is doing something right.
“When you get an award like this, it legitimizes what’s happening here. And it’s not just us; it legitimizes Aksarben Village and all the decisions that were made to come here and push ahead.”
Hughes said Aksarben Cinema is an engine helping to power the success of Aksarben Village – and vice-versa.
“We’re all a part of each other’s success. It’s synergy,” said Hughes. “I think Bill has figured out something about operating in the entertainment industry that no one in Omaha currently does.”
He continued, “Really, we’re the benefactors of the Barstows. We’re not the benefactor of ten screens – it’s how the ten screens are operated.”
The Barstows estimate half-a-million people visit the theatre each year, and they’ve found a way to leverage those crowds to make a difference for local nonprofits.
“When you purchase your tickets, you’re asked to donate a dollar to our local nonprofit of the month, and it can range from the Anti-Defamation League to the Humane Society, Angels Among Us or the Open Door Mission,” Andrea Barstow said.
Through guest donations, the theatre raises $20,000-$30,000 a year.
“We like choose charities that we can move the needle on,” Bill Barstow said.
While the Barstows said they are currently focused on making Aksarben Cinema the best theatre in the city, there is a sense that the Main Street Theatre family may experience a growth spurt at some point.
“It’s exciting,” Mr. Barstow said. “We have something here that we would like to share with more people. Who knows what the future holds? If we’re able to, it’d be really fun to expose what Aksarben Cinema is to more people.”
United Republic Bank sponsors the Chamber’s Small Business of the Month award. To nominate a small business online, visit www.omahachamber.org. Nominees must be current Chamber members with 50 employees or less.