After a rough two years for movie theaters across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shifts by film studios to release movies directly to streaming platforms, the McHenry Downtown Theater announced Wednesday it will no longer show motion pictures.
Instead, the local business will close its doors after its last currently scheduled live show in April to undergo another renovation, said Mike Sullivan, an investing owner in the theater.
The need to pivot the McHenry theater toward exclusively live events became obvious as Sullivan and his co-owners, which include McHenry Mayor Wayne Jett, saw the impact of decisions to release movies directly to streaming platforms instead of keeping them exclusive to theaters.
“COVID only escalated what was already in progress,” Sullivan said, adding that the film industry’s latest streaming-focused business model “has really crippled a lot of theaters.”
The plan is to build a bigger stage for live events, after the theater saw success hosting performances by comedians and children entertainers this past year.
“We as investors have tried everything to make this movie theater work. It’s unfortunate, but I see us bringing great talent to McHenry for our live events,” Jett said.
Since building a stage within the business, the performers it’s drawn include comics Chris Kattan and Bobcat Goldthwait, acts from “America’s Got Talent” and WGN sports anchor and comic Pat Tomasulo.
During the renovation, two of the three theaters in the building will be combined into one room, and an even larger stage than the one already built will be constructed.
After the renovation, one stage will have capacity to seat at least 300 people at tables and potentially more for some performances, such as live music, when some of the seating could be removed, Sullivan said.
Plus, the theater will newly configure seating and improve its sound and lighting capabilities. A new full-service restaurant and bar is also going to be added to the space under the current plans.
“One thing I’ve noticed over the years is people are still hungry for live events, especially coming out of the pandemic. They want live music, they want to laugh at comedy, they want to see their favorite artist like Prince, who is no longer here, but the closest thing to him with a cover,” Sullivan said.
He thinks the new business plan will give McHenry County residents the chance to see exhilarating live events without having to travel to Chicago or Milwaukee. He plans to host shows across a wide variety of artistic mediums, including open mic nights, talent shows and competitions that could help showcase local performers.
“We want to provide something people can go to in their backyard and have an amazing night, an amazing experience and talk about it the rest of the year without spending an arm and a leg,” Sullivan said.
It will be the second remodel of the theater since 2018, when a group of local investors decided to add a third theater screen and make other upgrades. Before that, it had been closed since 2014, according to a news release.
Sullivan said the goal is for the renovation to be complete by the fall of 2022, but said that timeline could be “ambitious.” Investors in the business are currently in talks with contractors about the scope and cost of the project and the amount of time it will take to complete, he said.
The decision to stop showing feature films was difficult, Sullivan said, but he thinks the new business will generate buzz.
“When you’re taking something like this away from the community, it’s not something that really goes over very easily. We wanted to supplement it with something better, maybe even more exciting,” Sullivan said. “While some are pretty bummed, I think there is a lot of excitement around this, too. I think it’s the right move to make.”