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How new Knoxville movie theater, Central Cinema, came to be in Happy Holler


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Knoxville’s William Mahaffey cherishes the experience of watching a movie in a theater with an audience.

In the age of streaming movies, he doesn’t want that feeling to get lost, so he, along with Nick Huinker and Logan Myers, worked to open Central Cinema, a new Knoxville movie theater in Happy Holler.

“Movies were also made to be watched in a theater and with an audience,” said Mahaffey, Central Cinema programming director. “I think an audience is a big part of your reaction to a movie that people don’t think about as much, but there’s something really special about when the lights go down, and you watch a movie, and everybody is reacting to the same thing. It’s just a specific kind of experience that gets lost a little bit when you just watch movies at home.”

Central Cinema, 1205 N. Central St., is holding its opening weekend this Friday-Sunday, Aug. 10-12, and will feature “Wild At Heart,” (with Friday and Saturday night screenings) “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (with Saturday and Sunday matinees), “Our House” (with Saturday and Sunday screenings) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (with weekend-long screenings). 

Why Happy Holler?

Organizing film screenings is nothing new for Mahaffey and Huinker. They’ve been in charge of the Knoxville Horror Film Fest for 10 years and held screenings at Relix Variety Theater, Scruffy City Hall and Ijams Nature Center.

Then they embarked on doing something more.

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“We like doing horror movies a lot, but we like all kinds of film and wanted to try and do other types of screenings,” Mahaffey said. “And the Happy Holler area and North Central have been growing the last couple of years, and it kind of seemed like that was a good area to get into now, and we just kind of went for it.”

They picked the building at 1205 N. Central St., formerly the Taoist Tai Chi Society, because it has a history of being a movie theater. It went through several name changes over the years including the Picto, the Central, the Liberty, the Cameo, the Joy and the Center, according to the venue’s website.

Crowdfunding and construction

Mahaffey, Huinker and Myers started a crowdfunding campaign for Central Cinema in June 2017 and raised $15,000 quickly. That amount showed them that people were into the idea, and they eventually raised a little more than $30,000 total.

They took a out a few loans to take care of the rest of the expenses, and construction took place from April-June 2018.

“There was still a lot of work involved,” Mahaffey said. “More work than we realized to be honest because when we started … we did the crowdfunding in June (2017), then we … started leasing the place in October (2017), and we thought we could probably be open by January or February (2018), but we really had no idea just how much work was in there, and that was a big learning experience.”

They transformed the building’s large open area in the front into the 100-seat theater with a 4K projector and used its lounge in the back for concessions and a hang-out area that connects to a deck in the back.

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Construction involved building two walls in the front, putting in risers and seats in the theater, painting, replacing the building’s electrical and plumbing, doing foundation work and updating things to code because Central Cinema needed a higher occupancy.

Mahaffey said they thought they would open in June and then in July. Some setbacks pushed them to August, and they have been testing their equipment all week to prepare for their opening weekend.

“It’s kind of a DIY thing that we’re doing. I think people were kind of expecting it to be more like a bar with a screen like a lot of other places, but we really pushed it to be a place as close to a … traditional theater as we can,” he said.

Central Cinema’s films, food and drink

Central Cinema’s opening weekend lineup is just taste of what’s to come from the theater’s programming.

“We think that there’s a big market for seeing older, classic films in the theater or like rediscover cult films and a lot of the independent movies that we’re going to be playing are really good films,” Mahaffey said. “It’s just they don’t make it Knoxville. They only play in major cities because the industry’s changed so much. They … aren’t able to play everywhere like they used to, so we want to bring that stuff to Knoxville.”

Mahaffey said Central Cinema’s ticket and concession prices will be cheaper than other theaters in town.

Ticket prices are $9 for evening screenings, $8 for students and military, $7 for matinees and seniors and $6 for children. Those interested can also join Central Cinema’s membership program, which offers discounts and perks for an annual fee of $89.

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Central Cinema will also have a snack bar with traditional movie concessions including popcorn, candy and locally-sourced treats. It will offer soft drinks and bottled and canned beers and ciders, too.

Movie screening times can be found on Central Cinema’s website, centralcinema865.com. The theater’s hours are 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays, and it will open an hour before showtimes Monday-Thursday.

More than a movie theater

In addition to showing films, Central Cinema is also available to rent for benefits, fundraisers, community outreach events and private events, according to its website.

Mahaffey said they plan to partner with local businesses for events like having a comic book night, where a comic book movie will be screened and local comic book store can come and sell its wares.

“So besides being a place for hardcore movie fans to go, we want it to be good for the community and be a place that has a diverse line-up of films and … we play a wide variety, so … it’s like equal representation, and we play a lot of stuff … for people who don’t get represented a lot on screen, and that’s like a big part of it too. It’s just making it like the community’s theater,” Mahaffey said.

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