The pandemic had everyone watching movies and entertainment at home, but food and entertainment sites are starting to reopen. So when Maryland went into stage 3 of its COVID response on Friday, September 4, Next Act Cinema was ready. Located in Pikesville, a suburb of Baltimore, the dine-in theater is the only Black-owned cinema in Maryland. It had a sold-out crowd for the premiere of “Tenet” starring John David Washington. “We were one of the top-ranked theaters for that film,” shares co-owner Anthony Fykes with excitement. “We were just as excited to reopen as we were when we first opened last year.”
Fykes says he and his business partner, Robert Wright, are relieved that Next Act was able to sustain during the shutdown thanks to loyal customers. “When COVID hit, all revenues just stopped, but the bill collectors didn’t. We didn’t want to ask for money originally, it was something we weren’t comfortable with, but so many patrons wanted to support us. So we got up the courage to start a crowdfund on the platform called FundBlackFounders,” explains Fykes.
Some of those donations helped them to buy the needed COVID safety items to reopen. That includes hand sanitizers, masks and sneeze guards. “Also, early on we invested in medical-grade air purifiers. There’s one in each theater as well as in our auditorium. And we invested in a fogger to disinfect the theaters the way they do for airplanes,” adds Fykes.
He continues, “When you come into the theater, you get a temperature check and every patron gets a squirt of hand sanitizer before they do anything. We also have one-way traffic only, so currently all patrons have to exit out of the emergency doors. And our ticketing platform automatically spaces out our guests, so they are not sitting right next to each other.”
But what were their plans before the pandemic? I originally sat down with Fykes back in March, just before the country shut down and during their one-year anniversary when I learned why he and Wright decided to become theater owners.
Making History in a Historic ‘Hood'
Next Act Cinema debuted in March 2019 by Next Act Entertainment owners Fykes, a native of Chicago who now lives near Alexandria, Virginia and Wright, a native and current resident of the Baltimore suburb of Owings Mills. The two met 13 years ago at GlaxoSmithKline. “And we really hit it off,” says Fykes. “And after Rob left the company, we stayed in touch. And I knew that we were destined to do something together. He’s a big audio tech guy. And he told me he wanted to open a movie theater. And I was like, ‘Why?’ And he said he used to have a lot of friends come over to his house to watch football games, and they recommended he open up his own business. And I said with Netflix and Amazon, why would we open a movie theater? But he thought it could be a really good thing. So I did the research and decided we’d be a boutique theater so we wouldn’t have to compete with big theaters like AMC, Regal and Cinemark,” Fykes says.
He continues, “And when we first went to get a loan from the bank, we were turned down.
And so we put our money together with family members who supported us and opened it up on our own. We had to deal with city planning, zoning, and the costs of running a theater. Like who knew that a projector costs about 40 thousand dollars? So we did a lot of research and attended a lot of conventions to learn as we went along.”
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The history-making owners decided to locate in a historic theater once called The Pikes, which operated from 1938 – 1984, then reopened from 2013 to 2016 before closing again. The neighborhood is historically Orthodox Jewish, with a mix of Black and Latino residents. Many long-time residents appreciate the owners keeping the original Pikes Theater marquee.
“I have great memories of the theater when it was The Pikes. I stood in a very long line in the winter cold to see ‘The Graduate' there when I was in high school. So I’m glad the theater has reopened,” says long-time resident Ruth Goldstein, President of the Friends of Pikesville Library, just two blocks away. She continues, “I saw the civil rights film ‘The Best of Enemies’ there last year and believe the owners did a great job with the renovation.”
Dinner and a Movie Experience
Fykes says his wife helped design the look of the cinema and adds, “People want to come for more than a movie. They want to come for an experience. So we wanted to be sure to provide food and alcohol. So we have a full-service bar where we serve cocktails, beer on tap and wine on tap. And we have a partnership with the Pikes Cinema Bar & Grill next door that provides most of our menu. We’re very proud of that community partnership. We offer salmon, wings, sandwiches, quesadillas, soups, pizza and our popular Baltimore club made with a Maryland blue crab cake.”
You get a very feng shui feeling when you first walk into the small but clean and airy lobby. There’s a small concession and ticket stand, a full bar that seats six, with hooks to hold your purse or coat, a “step and repeat” backdrop for event photos, and a cozy seating area for food and conversation that looks out onto the busy thoroughfare of Reisterstown Road. But what stands out is the photos of famous Blacks that line the upper walls of the lobby. With photos of people like former President Barack Obama, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou and Sidney Poitier, you feel such as you’re surrounded by excellence.
“We want these photos of famous Blacks to be sort of a shrine to the people who helped us to get where we are today,” exclaims Fykes. “And when we launched the movie ‘Harriett’ we had railroad tracks connecting each photo. We wanted patrons to feel empowered when they walked into the lobby.”
Shift leader Ray Redditt was a friendly greeter at the ticket counter, as well as the bartender who made my tasty strawberry and lemonade sangria. The cinema has two theaters with 43 seats each. The leather seats feel like comfortable La-Z Boys with a swivel table to enjoy your meal. I chose the amazing and filling Baltimore club, which is like a BLT, with shrimp salad and a Maryland crab cake taking it to a whole other level of deliciousness!
Shift leader Ashley Backe provided excellent customer service as she brought my meal to my seat. The aspiring actress, who lives five minutes from the cinema, decided to apply here after her parents told her what a great experience they had. “Everybody tends to have a great experience here, and I think that’s because the owners try to make it feel like a part of the community and everybody has a stake in it,” Backe smiles.
My “dinner and a movie” experience was also great, as I learned about Black history I had never known through the film “The Banker.”
“We don’t just launch African American movies, we’ve also launched films like ‘Birds of Prey’ and ‘Invisible Man.’ But as a Black-owned theater, we feel it’s important that we do show Black films,” notes Fykes. “For example, ‘The Banker’ was a limited release. I think there were only two movie theaters in Maryland that were showing it, and we were one of them. And for us, it was so important to get the true story out about these two African American men who were buying real estate in the 50s. We see plenty of films about Blacks in sports, but we don’t usually see films like this. So we showed the film on both screens, which is something we don’t normally do,” he admits.
Black-Owned Businesses Get the Spotlight
The owners also help support other Black-owned businesses by selling some of their products. “We partnered with Black-owned popcorn makers. Our toffee popcorn is made by a 17-year-old local resident. And our snickerdoodle [popcorn] is made by a husband and wife team in Woodbridge, Virginia,” says Fykes.
“Now that my popcorn and candy creations are being put into stores and movie theaters, it just feels unreal,” says Skye Gladden of his Janlitlfeather Gourmet toffee popcorn. The Baltimore City College senior continues, “I am inspired by the Next Act Cinema owners to go into business and marketing in college, so I can continue to develop my business.”
His mother, Stephanie Gladden adds, “I have a sister who lives in France, and I told her when all this [Coronavirus] mess is over, you have to come enjoy a movie with me at Next Act Theater!”
“We do more than 200 flavors of popcorn and I took about a dozen samples to Anthony and his staff, and they were just floored,” says David Brooks, owner of The Popcorn Bag Woodbridge. “And so Anthony chose the flavors that he thought would sell, and Snickerdoodle is the most popular. So we made that with the Next Act Cinema logo for them to sell at concessions, and it’s selling quite well. Next Act Cinema is a joy to work with and a great business no matter what the race of the owners,” Brooks exclaims.
Chanel Turner’s Fou-Dre vodka was used in my strawberry lemonade sangria. “I think it’s important to bring visibility to unknown, Black-owned brands,” says Turner, who was the first African American woman to produce her own vodka brand. “Sales are going well. Next Act has reordered with us at least six or seven times. Anthony likes to premier our products when there’s a new movie premier and he’s doing a major promotional event,” she adds.
Theme Parties and Jazz Music
Fykes says they love hosting events that provide unique experiences. “We also do karaoke nights for birthday parties and sports events and game nights. We also want to empower the people that work with us. Ray is an amazing keyboardist, and he’s done a couple of jazz night events here.
“I studied music here at Morgan State University, and I work with the Soulful Symphony, which is an all-Black orchestra. And so these work experiences are inspiring me that as a young Black man, I can own my own business too,” exclaims Redditt.
Fykes adds, “We try to do our events around the launches of our movies. We had a ‘67 Chevelle parked out front for the launch of the ‘Fast & Furious’ film. For the film ‘Ladies Night,’ we had a masseuse giving massages and offered free facials. For the film ‘Hustlers’ we had a pole dancing class. And for ‘The Lion King,’ we hosted birthday parties and free face painting for the kids.” He adds, “One woman had a birthday party around the film ‘School Daze’ and all of her guests dressed in ‘80s attire. There are also events planned for the upcoming film ‘Coming 2 America.’ The cost to rent the space is $560 and that includes the space and the movie tickets, and guests will buy their food a la carte. But with some events, we’ll have food packages.
Challenges and Community Conversations
But even with all that Next Act Cinema offers, there are still some challenges with the local community. First-time visitor Rev. Zelda Childs came to see “The Banker” with friends. “I was impressed. It was comfortable and clean, they had ample parking and the staff was friendly and helpful. And I think it’s important for us to have Black-owned theaters to show the films that show us in a positive light,” says Childs.
“But the one thing they need to do better is advertising,” she insists. “When they first opened, I saw a lot of stories about them. But now I don’t see anything about their films and events. And I know there are lots of people who are looking for alternatives to nightclubs for entertainment.”
Fykes responds, “We have about 10,000 followers on Facebook, so we usually post our film launches and events on Facebook or Instagram. And believe it or not, we’ve gotten a lot of customers from across the state and the country from word-of-mouth advertising. We’ve become like a destination theater, especially for African American travelers. But we do need to do better with our marketing. And that’s something we plan to work on.”
Ruth Goldstein notes a different challenge. “We want to patronize the theater in our own neighborhood. But it’s hard to regularly pay $16 a ticket when you can go to AMC on Senior Discount Day and pay only $6,” she laments.
“We have senior living housing in the neighborhood and so we thought about doing a Senior Day on a Monday,” says Fykes. “But when we launched a first-run film around that, we didn’t get a good crowd. It doesn’t matter what the discount is if no one wants to see the movie we’re showing that day. So it’s something we still need to look at,” he admits.
Fykes says they like to connect discount days to specific films and events that would attract that audience. “For example, I’d like to show a film like ‘Casablanca’ and have people dress in '40s attire and we’ll roll out our red carpet,” Fykes says.
Goldstein would also like to see more art-house films in the boutique cinema. But Fykes explains, “We recycle our movies every two weeks. But we also deal with the major film studios gently coercing us to keep their films longer if they’re doing well. So if we hold a film for three weeks instead of the usual two, that can hurt us for getting a new release. And new movies make most of their revenue in the first week or two. So all of that has to be considered on a bi-weekly basis. We also try to bring some Sundance films in, but they don’t usually do well.”
It’s hard to please everyone, but Fykes says community is very important to him and Wright. “We place local business ads on our two screens. That’s something most big theaters charge $1,000 a month to do. And we want to start something called NEXT Talk, like TED Talk, to start discussing topics that affect the community like mental health and nonviolence,” says Fykes.
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He concludes, “It’s important for us to continue to use this space for good, and to provide events for the entire community, not just the Black community. So we hope that whatever our patrons have given to us to keep us afloat, we hope that we’ve given back to them in value. We want to do right by our community and we want to stay humble and stay thankful and stay in God’s graces.”