Hometown Cinemas celebrates 10-year anniversary
By Wesley Gardner
Keith Hester still remembers his first magical experience at the movie theater. He was but a wee lad at the age of eight, gathered with his baseball team in a dimly lit cinema.
“This was back in the day, when the THX sound came on [before a movie],” said Hester, referencing the iconic synthesized crescendo. “That was so exciting as a kid.
“When you heard that, you knew you were at the movies. You were in a special place.”
Hester and his pals saw Home Alone in its opening weekend before the film went on to become one of the most profitable box office hits of all time.
“When you go to something that inspires you and motivates you, you think you can take on the world,” Hester said about that first moviegoing experience. “Any criminals come to my house and I’ll be ready.”
The magic of the cinema is something Hester has spent much of his life around. His father, Randy Hester, worked as an executive for Cinemark for 15 years. When Randy saw an opportunity to purchase what was then known as Aviator Theaters in Lockhart, he took it.
Thus, Hometown Cinemas was born.
Several months after taking over as owner of Hometown Cinemas, Randy put his son in charge as general manager.
At the time, the theater averaged about 50,000 people a year in attendance. In the 10 years that followed, Hometown Cinemas has expanded to five locations – Lockhart, Seguin, Gun Barrel City, Terrell and Mineral Wells – and has an average attendance of more than 750,000 people a year.
Hester no longer works as the general manager of the Lockhart location. That position has been filled by Mack O’Neill, who started working in the theater as a teenager during Hester’s early years. Now, Hester oversees operations at each location as the company’s director of customer relations and facilities.
Still, though, he sometimes likes to muse on his early years in the industry, when film was actually made of film and the world hadn’t yet been digitized.
“This was back in the 35-millimeter days,” he said, with a laugh. “We had old projectors — very old projectors.
“I mean they were 1950’s Italian projectors. I’m not a very mechanical guy, but I became one pretty quick.”
Back in those days, Hester said, the numbers of issues one could face during any particular screening were numerous and far more difficult to deal with in real time.
“We had to splice five, six reels together, and if you did that wrong, there was no fast-forwarding or rewinding the film,” said Hester. “You had to run it through, get to the error in the film, stop it and fix it.
“You’d have to shut down a movie for at least one show, if not two.”
The theater has since moved onto digital projectors, which Hester said are far easier to maintain. They’ve also since added digital sound processors and have taken measures to ensure the light levels in each of their films is ideal.
“We have the same equipment that Alamo Drafthouse uses, so we compete quality wise with AMC, Cinemark and Alamo Drafthouse,” said Hester, noting the Lockhart location has also undergone roughly $300,000 in additional renovations. “We ripped out the concession counters, the bathrooms.
“We put in new carpet. We put new seats in the big auditoriums. We painted the whole building.”
Hester said the company did it’s best to outsource all of the labor – the electricians, the plumbers, etc. – to Caldwell County companies, though some specialists were brought in from outside the county.
According to Hester, one of the reasons the theater has seen so much success over the past 10 years has been its ability to offer cheaper than average ticket prices. Currently, the theater offers tickets for $4 for children, seniors and matinee screenings. Regular tickets for adults run at $6.50 after 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
By comparison, the average ticket price for adults in Texas comes out to about $10.50, while the average ticket price for children is around $8, according to Box Office Mojo. In larger metropolitan areas like Austin, the price of admission can be much higher.
“If we make tickets cheaper, maybe you’ll spend more on a coke or a popcorn, which is where we make more money,” said Hester. “That’s what really supports the business.”
Hester said it took about three months for the switch to cheaper tickets to pay off, but by the end of that year, the business had grown by 30 percent.
Looking forward, Hester said one the biggest project he’ll tackle in the coming year will be the creation of a subscription and reward program, similar to what other large movie theaters have begun to offer in recent years.
“We have to adapt along with the industry,” he said.
At the end of the day, Hester says the entire idea of an establishment like Hometown Cinemas revolves around the community. As a former chair of the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce, he’s been a prominent presence in the community, assisting with events like Chisholm Trail Roundup and other city and county endeavors.
More than anything, he said, it’s about bringing people together.
“We’re social creatures and going to the movies is a social activity,” Hester said. “That’s why the industry has not been hurt by streaming and cable and DVD.
“Every major technological breakthrough, people have said, oh this is going to kill the movies. No. It’s not. It’s never going to go away. There’s no other place that you can go and sit with a group of strangers and laugh and cry and ooh and aah. It’s more enjoyable doing that together.”