Local cinema owner lives for the small-town screen

Johnny Woodard Staff Writer

September 26, 2013

LAURINBURG — Like the seventies-era Laurinburg Cinema he owns and operates, Jack Coan sees himself as a holdout — a representative of a different time that, while not a natural fit for modern life, is finding its way in a world of big-city multiplexes, smart phones and online video streaming.

The non-assuming, aging facade with the word “Cinema” displayed in bold black type was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century earlier this year when Coan purchased digital projection equipment for more than $200,000.

Coan says it was either that, or lose the option to show first-run movies — a decision that would have cost him the business he has operated for more than a decade with his father.

“I’m almost married to this business as much as I am my wife, and she’d probably argue more so,” Coan said of Delinda, who works at Hospice of Scotland County. “I don’t know what else I would do without it.”

Now that the investment has been made, Coan said that he is depending on the support of locals as he works to pay the equipment off. Keeping the doors open will mean exposing more people to the gospel of cinema — a message that Coan said has lifted him in his darkest moments and kept him optimistic about the future of the business.

“My goal is to at least get the projector paid off five years from now,” he said. “If you want to get rich, the independent theater business is not the place. But if you want to help others … like the theater has helped me, then you can keep going.”

Coan grew up in the movie business, learning from his father, George, who owned a series of drive-in and brick-and-mortar theaters in South Carolina.

“I started out selling popcorn for 25 cents a bag for my dad, saving money for that cap gun, or the things that a kid likes,” Coan said. “Those were my first experiences and they taught me the value of a dollar.”

Coan’s dream was to become a doctor, but was not long into his college career at Coastal Carolina when his own health problems stopped him short of his goal.

“My freshman year I was going to school to be a doctor, because no one helps people more than a doctor, and I went off to Coastal Carolina and had an aneurysm,” he said. “I was home from college over spring break, and that shows you how abnormal I am … and I was helping my uncle build a utility shed when I missed a nail and felt like I pulled a muscle.

“One doctor told me I was fine and to quit being a wimp and go home.”

But before Coan knew it, he was on a helicopter, being airlifted to a hospital in Columbia, S.C. He would soon learn that an aneurysm had formed about two inches from his heart.

From there, everything changed.

Coan missed a month of school, “fell behind, and into a depression.”

“I finally went home and worked for my dad,” he said.

Coan’s father died almost three years ago, leaving the entire operation to his son — and although not a doctor, Coan said he now helps people in a different way.

“I can’t tell you how many times in my life, for a couple of hours sitting down to watch a movie has given me not only enjoyment, but relief from the worries of the world,” he said. “I only wish more people understood that that is what the theater is about.”

Coan said he often finds himself at odds with a culture that “doesn’t get it.”

“The theater is about getting away and not a place for you to come in and talk to your boyfriend on your cell phone or talk through the whole thing. You are there to get lost in the movie and go to a different world for a couple of hours.”

That struggle with cultural reality is one he faces from a business perspective as well.

“I may want to show a documentary about flowers, but Madea pays the bills,” Coan said.

And while Coan admits that he was reluctant to make the switch to digital cinema, and that he “still loves film,” he could not be more pleased with the new equipment. Installed six weeks ago, the new pair of premium digital projectors are still thrilling to him, Coan said.

“The old system had huge projectors with exhausts, and these giant film platters that required constant attention and took up a lot of space, and with these I have scheduled out for the rest of the (week),” Coan said. “And the picture is probably even better.”

Kept not only as a reminder of the theater’s history, but also out of practicality, the new projectors sit on the large, iron stands that came with the old film projection equipment.

“That actually saved us $30,000,” Coan said. “And, really, it’s nice to still have them around.”

Coan envisions the new technology could also mean new opportunity for the theater, including the addition of local advertising, birthday parties and, in the future, themed screenings of older movies. Their automation also makes it easier for Coan to run the business by himself during the week.

Now Coan is looking to appeal to value-minded customers, with affordable ticket and concessions pricing and to earn the interest of theater-goers who appreciate having a local cinema.

“Support wise, we have plenty of people who support us, and we are glad, because independent theaters are the only ones that can stay in smaller towns,” Coan said. “The chains have pulled out of places like (Laurinburg).”