Exclusive: Star Cinema Grill to reopen River Oaks Theatre as showcase for indie films
Cary Darling, Staff Writer
People gather at River Oaks Theatre on the final day of showing films Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Houston.
Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer
The curtain is going up on a new era for the vacated River Oaks Theatre.
Kimco Realty, the Jericho, New York-based company that owns the River Oaks Shopping Center Center where the theater sits, announced Wednesday that the cinema will be re-opening as a showcase for art house and independent films operated by Sugar Land-based Star Cinema Grill, which has eight multiplexes in the Houston suburbs. No date has been set, but it may not open until the end of the year.
Mayor Sylvester Turner was due to make it official with a Wednesday evening press conference at the theater.
The announcement of Star Cinema Grill as the new tenant comes almost a year after talks broke down during lease negotiations between the former River Oaks Shopping Center landlord, Weingarten Realty, and California-based movie chain Landmark Theaters. The Art Deco venue at 2009 W. Gray, built in 1939 and the last of the vintage movie theaters in Houston still being used for its original purpose, shuttered on March 25, 2021, sending shock waves through the region’s film and architecture communities.
While the three-screen River Oaks is like nothing else in Star Cinema Grill’s cinematic portfolio — the company’s other theaters, such as the 10-screen Springwoods theater that opened in 2019, are sprawling, modern multiplexes located outside the Loop — Star Cinema Grill vice president of development Jason Ostrow says the plan is to keep the River Oaks as filmgoers remember it.
“Star Cinema Grill is a Top 10 blockbuster movie chain. We’re playing top 10 product, and that’s our business, and there’s not a lot of programming creativity that goes into that,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “This is going to be much more of what it was before, finding that specialty content, specialty events and live theater events in a mixed-use venue. Star Cinema Grill is more of the business side, and this will be more of the passion side."
Star Cinema Grill president and CEO Omar Khan has a special fondness for the River Oaks, Ostrow said. “He’s a local Houstonian. His family has been in the movie theater business for a very, very long time,” he said. “So this is almost kind of like a legacy project for Omar, something that he can keep in his family and pass down, nurture and curate.”
1930s look, 2020s feel
Kimco, which bought out Weingarten last year, wants to turn the shopping center into a recreational destination.
“It’s a place where people on a Saturday will say, ‘Hey, let’s go to River Oaks.’ Not necessarily, ‘Let’s go to a movie’ or ‘Let’s go to this restaurant or that restaurant’ but ‘Let’s go to River Oaks,’” said Andrew Bell, Kimco’s vice-president of leasing. “We’re trying to do things that promote that going forward … (The theater) plays very well into what our overall vision is for River Oaks.”
Kimco, which has a 10-year lease with renewal options with Star Cinema Grill, never had plans to put another form of retail in the building or tear it down. “I never considered it not to be a theater,” said Bell, who grew up in Atlanta and remembers the fight to save the iconic Fox Theater in that city.
The River Oaks will remain a three-screen venue, though the remodeling will include new, larger seats that will probably lessen its capacity. “The decor will feel like you’re in 1930, but it’s going to feel very new and updated and fresh,” Ostrow said. “So we’re designing custom-made seats for this facility that are only going to be in River Oaks.”
The plan also includes a live stage. “We’re going to try to find some other uses within the space for other programming opportunities,” Ostrow said. “Those are all things that are still being hashed out, planned and investigated to what’s actually possible within that space.”
While the movie-exhibition business has suffered during the pandemic, Ostrow is not concerned about the River Oaks’ ability to draw a crowd.
“Our business at Star Cinema Grill, we’re up over 120 percent over 2019,” he said. “Now, we are seeing certain parts of demographics that haven’t come back to movies yet fully, but the bulk of our business has returned, plus some.”
Star Cinema Grill, which has multiplexes in Richmond, Cypress, Spring, College Station, Vintage Park, Missouri City, Baybrook and Conroe, recently expanded beyond Texas with two locations in suburban Chicago.
‘A big win’
The city is pleased with the outcome.
“I am thrilled to say that we finally have a long term solution to preserve this historic treasure that will inspire Houstonians for years to come,” said council member Abbie Kamin, whose District C includes the River Oaks Theatre.
Also satisfied is The Friends of the River Oaks Theatre, an activist group formed in the wake of the theater’s closure that includes Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Bun B. The group had made its own pitch to Kimco to operate the theater.
“It’s a big win,” said Maureen McNamara, a co-founder of the organization, noting that Feb. 2 marks the anniversary of the group’s first meeting. “For these guys to be sincerely planning on keeping the theater an art house, I think that’s important for the theater.”
She hopes that the Friends of the River Oaks Theatre can still be involved somehow.
“It’s still kind of an evolving situation because everybody’s still figuring out however all the pieces fit together,” she said. “But it’s like when somebody has half the ingredients to make a cake, and the other person has the other half the ingredients to make a cake … Working together we could help do something really amazing.”