THIS PHOTO shows the State Theater in Central City, Nebraska.

THIS PHOTO shows the State Theater in Central City, Nebraska.


Small-town movie theaters aren’t exactly a growth industry. But after years without a movie theater, Central City — a Nebraska town of about 3,000 — has added two first-run cinemas (and a total of three screens): the renovated State Theater and the newly built Widman Cinema.

“We feel like both theaters offer two different types of experiences,” said Ann Herbig, a committee board member and volunteer of the Widman. “We think they’re both going to thrive, and we think Central City will be the part of central Nebraska to come see a movie.”

The impetus for the two theaters started in 2013, when the State, the city’s only movie theater at the time, closed its doors.

Around this time, two separate Central City groups formed. One group wanted to restore the downtown State Theater. The other wanted to build a new two-screen cinema on the east side of town.

Both groups succeeded.

The State Theater reopened last spring, 100 years after the building was built. The original owners chose to close the theater because they couldn’t afford the conversion from film to digital projection. The building was eventually donated to the nonprofit State Theater Foundation, which invested about $100,000 of grants and donations into restoration. About $45,000 of that went to a digital projector.

The two-screen Widman Cinema recently opened, about half a mile east of the State Theater. Each auditorium of the Widman Cinema contains 96 seats, and the business will be open seven days a week. Its first showings, “Boss Baby” and the new “Fast & Furious” movie.

The Widman was an effort of Merrick County Entertainment Corp. The $1.3 million project was made possible by a $360,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and 125 local donations, not to mention an estimated 3,000 hours of volunteered labor.

“We have received and continue to receive not only monetary contributions, but people and companies have offered goods and services to make the dream become a reality,” said Brian Buhlke, Widman Cinema committee president. “It’s pretty special.”

One local company has even offered to do the theater’s landscaping for free.

A town of 3,000 having two theaters in 2017 is an anomaly; small-town movie theaters have had a rough go of it.

For starters, fewer people go to the movies. North American box office continues to rise, thanks to inflation and ticket price spikes, but the number of tickets sold in the U.S. per person is actually at a 100- year low.

The conversion to digital served as a deathblow to hundreds of small cinemas across the country. As studios phased out production of 35mm film reels, theaters were faced with the choice to go digital or die.

Digital conversions cost anywhere from $45,000 to $150,000, and many art-house cinemas and mom and pop operations couldn’t afford the shift.

The Widman will only be able to survive if it can keep operation costs low. That’s the plan, thanks to some help from the town.

“It will take a whole community to keep this going,” Herbig, the committee member, said.

The theater will have just one paid employee, the manager. Everything else is volunteer-run, which will help keep prices down, $4 for children, $5 for seniors and veterans, $6 for adults and $4 matinee shows for everyone.

The Widman’s opening weekend was not only encouraging for its big crowds, Herbig said, but also for the number of volunteers. She doesn’t expect to lack for helping hands.

The cinema is named for Darrell Widman, a Central City farmer who owned a popcorn company for 20 years and sold his product to the Carmike Cinemas. Widman made a $100,000 donation to the project. For Widman, Herbig and many others, having a theater in Central City was essential. (Having two is even better.)

“Having a theater in a small town really creates a gathering place for people,” Herbig said. “It isn’t just going to be a theater experience but also a place for the community to come together and support one another. A lot of memories will be made in this theater. We’re just so happy that Central City has stepped up and taken hold of this project. It’s a great place to live, and this is just one example of that.”

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