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March 16, 2022

The past two years have been horrific for the movie theater business—unless you’re Mitch Roberts. While most venues remained shut, he expanded, transforming a mundane trip to the movies into Evo Entertainment’s memorable mix of bowling, arcade games, comfort food and booze.

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott allowed the state’s Covid-shuttered movie theaters to reopen at 25% capacity on May 1, 2020, most operators took a pass. Never mind the possibility of hosting a superspreader. With no new releases and few patrons, the economics just didn’t make sense. Mitch Roberts disagreed. Only 25 years old, he had built Austin-based Evo Entertainment up to six sites in Texas with 57 screens, 38 bowling alleys, full meal service, 200 arcade games—and a hefty $42 million in debt. When his operations had to close six weeks earlier, he says, “initial reaction was fear. immediate second reaction was, let’s get ready for reopening.”

Roberts began showing cult classics like Grease and The Goonies to sparse indoor crowds and rented out idle auditoriums to gamers who wanted to play Fortnite on a 65-foot screen. He improvised new revenue streams: painting the exterior of two multiplexes white to serve as drive-in screens, turning 9 acres of cow pasture into paintball courses and packaging gallon jugs of margaritas and at-home movie night snack kits for pickup and delivery. While many competitors remained shut, he generated buzz with a summer drive-in film festival and a faux pumpkin patch offering horror flicks and Halloween milkshakes, both spiked and alcohol-free. “[Others] took the batten-down-the-hatches approach,” he says. “We took the remind-people-there’s-a-place-for-you-here approach.”

As the pandemic has dragged on, a handful of chains announced permanent closings while others, such as Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse (which pioneered serving booze to moviegoers a quarter-century ago) reorganized in bankruptcy. But Roberts went into expansion mode, scooping up four darkened Texas facilities including Southlake Town Square in Dallas, which he is now turning into a flagship with seven dine-in theaters, heated recliners, laser tag, bumper cars, mini-golf and an indoor ropes course. “No one is buying cinemas and concert venues. But they’re not going away,” Sheffield says. “When lockdowns are over the pent-up demand will be serious.”

Now with 16 locations, 148 screens and 108 bowling lanes, Roberts expects more than $125 million in sales this year. And he’s still tweaking his pandemic-era model. “We’re experimenting with pods,” he says. That’s a love seat for two, with distance and privacy from fellow moviegoers, be it for Covid protection or other benefits.

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