When Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright met, they immediately connected through their love for movies. But the pair never imagined that a shared passion for cinema would lead them to open their own theater together.
NextAct Cinema, the only black-owned movie theater in the state of Maryland, opened on March 7 and the response has been overwhelming, the owners say. After a few viral posts online and media coverage, moviegoers from all over have shared messages of support and excitement about the theater’s opening.
”I’ve gotten emails from Texas, from Chicago, from South Carolina, from California,” Fykes, 38, told HuffPost. “The support has been very humbling for us because we didn’t know that what we were doing could have such a social impact.”
The pair met while working at a healthcare company and have remained good friends throughout the years. When Wright invited Fykes to check out his home theater in Reisterstown, Maryland, he told his future business partner that he’d like to replicate the communal atmosphere his home theater provides on a larger scale, which set the plan for NextAct Cinema in motion.
“I have a lot of friends who would prefer to come to [the home theater] during the Super Bowl or when a big movie comes out,” Wright, 41, said. “So it really made me think it’s … an intimate experience, and it will be really cool if we could do something similar on a larger scale but not too large or people can still have that same experience.”
They renovated the Pikes Theatre in Pikesville, Maryland, a suburb northwest of Baltimore, and gave it a brand new look. There are two small but comfortable theater rooms with 43 seats each. Guests can order popcorn, a meal or wine from their seats, delivered by the theater’s waitstaff.
According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of frequent African-American moviegoers soared from 3.8 million in 2015 to 5.6 million in 2016. However, many black communities across the country are “cinema deserts” and lack any movie theaters at all, much less any that are black-owned.
Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, says black-owned businesses like NextAct Cinema help to inspire future generations of black business owners and entrepreneurs.
“We need to increase the availability of entrepreneurial examples that could inspire future generations of black business owners to start their own movie theaters and other businesses that we don’t typically see in black communities,” he said. “But it’s hard to aspire to it if you don’t see it.”
Even though black-owned movie theaters are rare today, there is a long history of successful theaters that were catered to African-American patrons. Those theaters not only served as places for black people to watch movies but as communal spaces when they were being excluded.
The Historic Carver Theatre in New Orleans, for example, was built in 1950 amid Jim Crow laws that kept Louisiana and the South segregated. It was one of the few theaters where blacks could go to the movies. Former NBA star Magic Johnson owned a chain of theaters named after him before they were acquired by AMC Theatres in 2006. His theaters brought films to black communities that would usually have to drive further out to watch a movie.
NextAct Cinema’s co-owners are proud to now be a part of that history. “Robert and I realize that we’re standing on the shoulders of other people that have been here before us,” Fykes said. “But along with that, we are also standing side by side, holding hands with others that are here now.”
Although “Captain Marvel” was the first film shown at the theater, it wasn’t until Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us” that the pair knew they had become part of something special.
“There was a comment from a customer that said, ‘At NextAct Cinema in Pikesville, Maryland: Us watching Us inside of Us.’ That comment right there resonated with me because we hadn’t thought about it in that way,” Fykes recalled. “We didn’t know what we were doing could have such an impact.”
Wright remembered a couple who drove an hour just to see “Us” at their theater.
“The reality is, they had to drive past at least 30 theaters that probably had the same movie,” he said. “That feeling of support was really overwhelming. It was emotional. We didn’t look at our business from that lens at all, and the amount of support we’ve received from the black community is amazing.”