A movie-loving Utah couple buy a theater to fight streaming with nostalgia

The Maven Cinemas in American Fork is one of the few repertory theaters in Utah, playing all classic movies.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph and Dvorah Governale in their two-screen theater on Main Street in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

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Dvorah and Joseph Governale said that revitalizing the two-screen movie theater on American Fork’s Main Street is an early “retirement dream” come true.

“Because we’re two busy people, we’re never going to actually retire and want to be done,” Joseph Governale said. “So it’s like when it’s time to retire, we’re gonna buy a little two-screen movie theater.”

The “third act” for the self-described movie buffs came a bit earlier than expected, Dvorah said. They recently bought the old Towne Cinema — where neither had seen a film before — and named it the Maven Cinemas. (“Maven,” Dvorah said, means a connoisseur of something.)

The couple met at a church singles function, when both were living in Florida. “[We] started talking about our shared love of theater in our first conversation, and that was kind of it for us,” Dvorah said. “We were clicked together ever since.”

Movies — and the act of going to the theater, sitting down to see them — has always been a part of who they are, separately and together, they said.

“Going out of high school, getting ready for college, I was trying really hard to decide between live theatre and film,” Joseph said. He eventually went into theater. Before buying the Maven, Joseph was the production manager and lighting designer at the Hale Center Theater Orem, where Dvorah is the costume designer.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maven Cinemas, on Main Street in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Joseph has also spent 17 years working in movie theaters, in Florida and in New England.

The larger of the Maven’s two theaters seats 300 people, and includes a stage. (The previous owners put on live shows instead of movies, Joseph said.) The smaller theater seats 200. Both have a classic movie theater feel, with a long narrow aisle down the center of the auditorium, leading to the screen.

Outside, a bulb-lit marquee and a ticket booth — literally a box office — add to that nostalgic feeling that the Governales say they will guide their operation of the theater. Their tagline is “nostalgic films, new memories,” which, Joseph said, “encompasses everything six months or older.”

Finding a building with a history, even if it meant restoring the place, was part of the Governales’ original dream.

The Governales have also decorated the lobby with movie posters. Joseph started collecting them around 2007 or 2008, when he worked as a corporate technician and had free rein to grab posters. His collection, he said, is down to around 1,500 — a fifth of what he originally had, he said, after the couple moved a few years back and downsized.

On this visit, the posters on display highlight such titles as “The Hobbit,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Resident Evil: Afterlife,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Monsters Inc.” The Governales switch them out once a week, depending on what they’re showing. Many of them are printed on both sides — an industry practice to make sure the colors stay vibrant when light shines through them in theater display cases.

“There was a time where basically every town or city had one of these theaters,” Joseph said, standing in a row of seats in the larger theater. “These buildings are going away fast.”

According to an ad in the American Fork Citizen, the theater opened on Aug. 31, 1950, as the Coral Theatre — the first movie screened was “My Blue Heaven,” starring Betty Grable. According to the website UtahTheatres.info, the Coral changed its name to the Towne Cinemas in 1980, and briefly in 2003 one of the auditoriums had live shows and was called the Biscuit Theatre (for Utah comedian Johnny Biscuit).

Joseph said it’s lovingly known around American Fork as the “sticky shoe theater.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the theatre's at Maven Cinemas, in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

How to fight against streaming

That nostalgia factor is one lure, the Governales said, they have to draw their audience away from the competition — like streaming services.

“That’s never gonna go away, the subscription way of life,” Dvorah said.

Last year, Bountiful’s Top Hat Video closed after 40 years, and some employees said a spike in streaming services during the COVID-19 pandemic was one reason why.

“We’ll always love being comfy on the couch at home,” Dvorah said of their own streaming habits. “I also love putting on a pair of stilettos and a babydoll dress to go see ‘Barbie,’ or going to a Marvel marathon in my jammies.”

Joseph said, “People are always looking for nights out [and] places. It’s why movie theaters stuck around. … There’s something special about being in an auditorium full of people that feel the same about the movie that you’re watching and getting excited about it.”

Joseph recalled seeing a midnight screening for one of the “Star Wars” movies, “when you’re in a packed auditorium with people watching the first time Yoda came out and lit his lightsaber. … Everyone in the room lost it and it just becomes this memory. That’s what we hope: to create these moments.”

Joseph said his favorite films are “Léon: The Professional” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Dvorah’s are “Coco,” “Inside Out” and anything Marvel-related.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maven Cinemas, on Main Street in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

The Governales aim to stage events around the movies they show — such as costume contests and watch parties for series (such as the “Twilight” saga). They also plan to show a variety of films — during the week of Oct. 10, the couple said they were showing 14 films.

Every week, they try to figure out how many screenings of each film will draw the most moviegoers.

They have been using Google Trends to suggest movies, Dvorah said. They were looking to choose between the 1999 version of “The Mummy” (because actor Brendan Fraser recently won an Oscar) and “Addams Family Values” (because of the popularity of the Netflix series “Wednesday”).

“We went on Google Trends, just to see … what is being searched for, [and] ‘Mummy’ was way lower than ‘Addams Family,’” Dvorah said. “We want to make sure we’re putting movies out there that other people want to see.”

The movies they pick, Joseph said, are in three categories: kids’ movies, family-friendly movies, and movies for adult audiences.

They also try to be good listeners, Dvorah said — which is why the lobby includes a long chalkboard where customers can respond to one question: “What movies do you want to see back on the big screen?” In early October, “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Ghost,” “Inside Out,” “La La Land” and “Edward Scissorhands” were among the answers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) customers request films that want to see on a chalkboard at Maven Cinemas, in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Community and legacy

Maven doesn’t have the plush heated seats that nearby theaters have — though they’re on their wish list, Dvorah said — but it does have deep roots in the community.

Since opening, the Governales said, they’ve heard from people all over. Some see the marquee and stop in. Even the health inspector who checked out the theater had stories.

Some recalled their favorite movies. Others recalled moments of teenage romance.

“People have so many emotional ties to this building is kind of amazing, first movies and first kisses,” Dvorah said.

Earlier this month, Joseph said a family with three small children came in to see the 1950 Disney version of “Cinderella.”

“That was one of the little girls’ first movie theater experience, like the original ‘Cinderella’ is the very first time she ever saw the movie,” Joseph said. “It’s just cool to be a part of memories for people.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joseph Governale looks through movie posters in the back room of their theater, in American Fork, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Kay Norman, who worked for 12 years at the theater starting in 1981, is one of those people. When she started, before her junior year of high school, the job worked well with her schedule — particularly because the theater was closed on Sundays.

“There was a lot of regulars that came. [You] wouldn’t necessarily get to know their names, but you’d recognize them from coming time and time again,” Norman said.

The “sticky shoe theater” nickname was earned, Norman said.

“It just was hard to keep the sticky off the floors,” she said. Custodians would mop up on mornings six days a week — except on Sundays, which meant Saturday night’s mess wouldn’t get cleaned until the crew arrived on Monday morning, she said.

The matinees for Disney movies, Norman said, were “crazy. … They would always sell out. You just have a gazillion people come, and concessions were just full of popcorn and sticky pop. And everything and everybody finally get in the show and [you] get things cleaned up and then start all over again.”

Utah’s famed fascination with Disney is something the Governales aim to use to their advantage in 2023.

“A lot of companies will be like, ‘You can show our first-run movies and our old stuff is fine,’” Joseph said. “Disney actually draws a line and says, ‘You are either a first-run theater and you can only show first-run movies, or you’re a repertory theater and you can show movies that are six months old or older.”

A set of creaky stairs leads to the projection booth, which is filled with a distinct whirring sound, and has its original control switches and projectors. “It’s wild to think about the movies that have been seen from that [room],” Dvorah said.

Joseph can control a lot of the theater’s technical aspects from his laptop, but the hard drives live upstairs. “Usually when they do a re-release, … they put it on a hard drive,” he said. Among the drives on the shelf: “Hocus Pocus,” “E.T.,” “Monsters Inc.” and the 1976 version of “Carrie.”

The Governales have big plans, including an Open Cinema night where filmmakers can share their movies, and CatVideoFest, a compilation of internet cat videos that will be shown as a charity fundraiser. They also want to partner more with local businesses, and start a program to show book-to-film adaptations to homeschooled children.

“Putting good stories out in the world is one of the most important art forms that there is,” Dvorah said. “What I love about film is it takes all [art mediums] and puts them all together in one so you have the most immersive, deep level experience of storytelling.”

Storytelling matters, she said, because it’s “out there to help us to connect, heal and feel inspired.”

Correction • In an earlier version of this article, co-owner Joseph Governale claimed the Maven Cinemas is the only repertory theater in Utah. In fact, the Utah Theatre in Logan is also a repertory movie house.