In hosting the Bentonville Film Festival the past three years, the city has gotten attention — and perhaps been the butt of some jokes — over the fact that it was the setting of a film industry event but lacked the presence of a movie theater within the city limits. Starting Thursday [Nov. 9] that will change.
Skylight Cinema, a six-screen theater showing first-run movies, will open in the Arts District of Bentonville about five blocks southwest of the downtown square, and it will mark the first time a cinema has been in operation in the town since The Plaza Theater, located in what is now the Meteor Guitar Gallery event venue, closed in 1985.
Last year, a spokesman for the Walton-led development group Northwest Arkansas Downtown Revitalization Fund said the theater would be ready in time for the Bentonville Film Festival in May, but the opening was delayed by several months.
Nadia Clevenger, a representative of Austin, Texas-based Skylight Cinemas, which is leasing the property from the Revitalization Fund, said, “There is a lot of complexity in a business like this. We were just making sure all the technologies were in place, from the kitchen to the building engineering and structure. We have everything in place now. Really excited to bring a variety of content to Northwest Arkansas.”
The Skylight Cinema will play a variety of films from both major and independent studios and will offer special screenings and events throughout the year, from sporting events to classic films to “cultural experiences,” according to its website.
It has five theaters, with two screens showing the same film in one large room.
Tickets are now available online for the openings of “Justice League” at Skylight on Nov. 17 and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” starting Dec. 14, and “Star Wars” will be available in 3D.
Skylight’s opening weekend will feature the films “Daddy’s Home 2,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” “A Bad Moms Christmas,” “The Lego Ninjago Movie” and “Loving Vincent,” a movie based on the life of artist Vincent Van Gogh and told through animations comprised of tens of thousands of oil paintings, according to the “Loving Vincent” website.
The type of entertainment on display at Skylight is one element that will set it apart from other movie theaters, Clevenger said.
“We will listen to the audience and are thinking about content in a fresh way, but we also want to maintain that nostalgia and that feeling that keeps people coming back to the movie theater,” she said. “We view the movie-going experience as one that brings people together. We think that is what has allowed cinema to be successful for so many years. So while continuing to offer what people expect, that nostalgic movie theater experience, we also want to elevate the food, beverage and customer experience.”
The theaters collectively have 363 seats, with reclining and rocking options, and the cinema will serve fast-casual gastropub fare through its full-service restaurant and bar, The Cutting Room, operated by brothers Don Ray and William Ray.
Menu offerings will include hand-held items like burgers and sandwiches, including a steak, grilled chicken and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, in addition to a pork-belly and beef burger with Sriracha and fresh greens on a brioche bun.
There will be two or three different pizzas, seared ahi tuna, hand-breaded chicken tenders with bacon gravy sauce, fried cheese curd and several salad choices, including vegetarian options, Don Ray said. The culinary team has in the works, for example, a strawberry salad with poppy seed dressing and an Asian salad with seared ahi tuna and a light peanut dressing.
The planned menu is extensive and Ray considers it to be still in the “research and development phase,” he said. Prices will range from about $7.50 for appetizers to roughly $12-$13 for entrees.
Cutting Room also will serve mock-alcoholic beverages and milkshakes. Movie-goers can order and get drink refills from their seats, while a separate cocktail lounge that seats an estimated 30-40 people is open to the public.
The Ray brothers also own Cannibal & Craft and the private bar Ben’s Apartment on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. Before that, they opened Willy D’s piano bars in Fayetteville and Little Rock but have since sold them in 2015 and 2012, respectively.
In addition to serving beer and wine on draught, the Ray brothers have pulled from a repertoire they have built during 15 years in the bar industry. The Cutting Room will offer 10 draught cocktails, from more traditional hurricanes, margaritas and Moscow mules to “outside the box” options like the “horseshoe hand grenade,” made with tequila and fresh fruit, and the “basil peach smash.”
Ray said one key ingredient in The Cutting Room drinks is house-made falernum, a spiced syrup with notes of allspice, cloves, almond and ginger.
The Ray brothers originally were going to take on only the beverage side of the operation, but they have connections to the restaurant industry who they added to their team and before long, ideas were taking form.
“We just dove in head-first,” Ray said. “The Waltons have invested a tremendous amount of money and time into developing downtown Bentonville and this building. We all want Northwest Arkansas to shine.”
EVENT SPACE OPTIONS
Ray added there is a “very community-driven” element to the Skylight’s event programming, enabled by a “unique,” modular seating layout in the cinema’s main theater. The space will be available to be rented out for events, and Ray believes it will also be a key venue for the 2018 Bentonville Film Festival.
He also sees another potential for the space.
“The plan is, once we get rolling, to be able to show sporting events like the Super Bowl, the World Series and March Madness at no charge. People will be able to come in off the streets and roll into the room and watch the Super Bowl, for example, and get drinks and food.”
For the Ray brothers, the driving force behind what they do has not changed since opening the first Willy D’s in Fayetteville 2002.
“We just want to make people happy, create that mini vacation,” Ray said. “You get to step out of your everyday life and just have fun.”
The Northwest Arkansas Downtown Revitalization Fund, which is funded by Tom Walton and Steuart Walton, owns and developed the property. The two are grandchildren of Helen and Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart Stores.
A Walton-led entity bought the 1.44-acre site at 350 S.W. A St. in summer 2015 for $1.57 million.
Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Fayetteville, which also has an office in Little Rock, was the architect on the project. Construction was handled by Tulsa-based Flintco, to a cost of about $2.4 million on the nearly-16,000-square-foot theater, according to a building permit that was granted for the project.
The Skylight website refers to Bentonville as its “flagship” location, and Clevenger said the team has plans, though not immediate, to open theaters in other areas. It chose Bentonville to get started, “because we saw it as a desirable location,” she said.