New Milford movie theater promises safety precautions as it opens amid COVID-19
In a dark movie theater, you lean back in the glow of a giant luminous screen. Popcorn lifted halfway to your mouth, something in the movie takes your breath away, and tears spring to your eyes.
Embarrassed, you suddenly look to the left and right and notice sniffles from the people around you. Maybe someone else is reaching for a tissue.
Despite the sad moment, you feel connected and encouraged by the shared experience you’re having with complete strangers.
That’s the kind of experience owner Art Helmick wanted to bring to Milford when he opened his brand new movie theater Dec. 31.
“Movies are an escape,” said Helmick, who also owns Main Street Movies in Newark and Westown Movies in Middletown – and he's convinced people are going to be looking for that opportunity this year more than ever.
Helmick bought the property right off the Route 1 exit at 989 N. Dupont Blvd., a 72,000-square-foot building that was previously a Walmart, in October 2018 and began construction a year later. Only using just over half the building for what is now Milford Movies 9, he sold the other half to United Church. The church, which also has a location in Dover, plans to prepare the space to expand its campus in Milford.
Helmick originally planned to open Halloween, but said the pandemic delayed construction by about three months. With movie production companies taking a hit, he said “it’s a ripple effect” to other parts of the industry, meaning some companies that make products for movie theaters also shut down.
Still, the theater opened before the new year and the contractor, GGA Construction of Middletown, managed to maintain the budget at about $12 million, Helmick said.
When Delaware first saw the effects of the pandemic in March, Helmick kept a positive attitude and said he wouldn’t let anything stop him.
Now, almost a year later, he has that same spirit.
“Sometimes you just have to have faith in things,” he said.
A ‘safe, comfortable’ place
When designing the new movie theater and choosing its technology, General Manager Sven Johnson said the staff tried to make a streamlined process from the moment people walk in the door.
If guests have not ordered tickets online already, either at MilfordMovies9.com or Fandango.com, they select and purchase seats at kiosks at the front of the theater.
They can then buy popcorn, snacks and beverages, including soda that is self-serve to avoid long wait times. The popcorn station features a new no-touch butter dispenser that streams butter when a bucket of popcorn is placed beneath it.
A lot of these changes were planned before the pandemic, Johnson said, but they also work to limit crowds and contact – two big focuses of COVID-19 prevention.
To promote social distancing, the system that helps guests select their seats automatically blocks off two seats on either side of a group. The distance between each row is at least 6 feet.
If people from different households want to meet at the theater and not sit side-by-side, they can choose to scatter themselves throughout. One of the smaller theaters is even designated as a viewing room that groups can rent out, most likely for birthday parties or other gatherings that will reappear after the pandemic subsides.
Theater management asks everyone to wear masks and only remove them while eating, and Helmick said everyone has followed the guidelines since opening.
Behind the scenes, surfaces are cleaned frequently and everything is sanitized nightly. An air filtration system constantly monitors the amount of carbon dioxide in the theaters to ensure full ventilation, a focus of COVID-19 prevention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What makes this theater special
Beyond safety, this theater boasts new technology that promises a unique experience for viewers.
The first thing people might notice when they walk into one of the nine theaters is the “state-of-the-art” recliner chairs. Buttons on the inside of the chair offer three levels of heated seats and an option to adjust the headrest.
The latter is part of Helmick’s plan to maximize the viewing experience for guests because adjusting the headrests allows people to angle their head toward the screen, while a typical reclined chair might have them looking up at the ceiling.
On the right side of the chair is a USB port where people can charge phones or other devices.
Each theater is also equipped with laser projection, which produces a brighter and clearer image and fades slower than bulbs,.
“The picture is crystal clear – it really is,” Johnson said. “It’s so nice.”
For sound quality, the biggest theater hosts an advanced surround sound system called Dolby Atmos, which uses as many as 70 speakers throughout the room.
Knowing that this would be Milford’s first movie theater in decades, Johnson and Helmick agreed that they wanted to create a fun and exciting experience for the city’s residents.
“I want it to be the hometown theater,” Helmick said.
Johnson said it’s been rewarding to provide that for the community, since typically people in Milford would have to travel to Dover or Lewes for the movies.
“I think especially during COVID times, you know a lot of people are stressed and down," he said, "it’s just a good way to come out and have a fun, exciting, safe experience."