River Oaks Theater lives again


The curtain is going up on a new era for the vacated River Oaks Theatre.

Kimco Realty, the Jericho, New York-based company that owns the River Oaks Shopping Center where the theater sits, announced Wednesday that the cinema will be re-opening as a showcase for art house and independent films operated by Sugar Land-based Star Cinema Grill, which has eight multiplexes in the Houston suburbs. No date has been set, but it may not open until the end of the year.


While the three-screen River Oaks is like nothing else in Star Cinema Grill’s cinematic portfolio — the company’s other theaters, such as the 10-screen Springwoods theater that opened in 2019, are sprawling, modern multiplexes located outside the Loop — Star Cinema Grill vice president of development Jason Ostrow says the plan is to keep the River Oaks as filmgoers remember it.

“Star Cinema Grill is a Top 10 blockbuster movie chain. We’re playing top 10 product, and that’s our business, and there’s not a lot of programming creativity that goes into that,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “This is going to be much more of what it was before, finding that specialty content, specialty events and live theater events in a mixed-use venue. Star Cinema Grill is more of the business side, and this will be more of the passion side.”

Star Cinema Grill president and CEO Omar Khan has a special fondness for the River Oaks, Ostrow said. “He’s a local Houstonian. His family has been in the movie theater business for a very, very long time,” he said. “So this is almost kind of like a legacy project for Omar, something that he can keep in his family and pass down, nurture and curate.”

Kimco, which bought out Weingarten last year, wants to turn the shopping center into a recreational destination.

“It’s a place where people on a Saturday will say, ‘Hey, let’s go to River Oaks.’ Not necessarily, ‘Let’s go to a movie’ or ‘Let’s go to this restaurant or that restaurant’ but ‘Let’s go to River Oaks,’” said Andrew Bell, Kimco’s vice-president of leasing. “We’re trying to do things that promote that going forward … (The theater) plays very well into what our overall vision is for River Oaks.”

Kimco, which has a 10-year lease with renewal options with Star Cinema Grill, never had plans to put another form of retail in the building or tear it down. “I never considered it not to be a theater,” said Bell, who grew up in Atlanta and remembers the fight to save the iconic Fox Theater in that city.

The River Oaks will remain a three-screen venue, though the remodeling will include new, larger seats that will probably lessen its capacity. “The decor will feel like you’re in 1930, but it’s going to feel very new and updated and fresh,” Ostrow said. “So we’re designing custom-made seats for this facility that are only going to be in River Oaks.”

The plan also includes a live stage. “We’re going to try to find some other uses within the space for other programming opportunities,” Ostrow said. “Those are all things that are still being hashed out, planned and investigated to what’s actually possible within that space.”

See here and here for the background. I had no idea any of this was in the works, so the story was quite a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t that the old theater had trouble drawing crowds, it was that Weingarten figured they could make more money doing something else on that spot. Which, to be fair, they almost certainly could have done. It will be interesting to see if new landlords Kimco continue to see this as a worthwhile venture even if it’s not as lucrative as it could be. But that (and where all the new people they want to attract will park if they have to drive there) is a problem for tomorrow. For today, celebrate the win. CultureMap and Sarah Gish have more.

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3 Responses to River Oaks Theater lives again

  1. Frederick says:

    Very welcome news!

    Can’t wait to sit in one of the little ‘balcony’ theaters upstairs in the seats that don’t look directly at the screen and are slightly askew.

  2. Jason Hochman says:

    I am glad that the theater will be back, but I wonder if it will still show movies that are more off the beaten path, the art films, foreign films, and such, as well as having the Midnight Madness on weekend nights.

  3. Jonathan Freeman says:

    “Star Cinema Grill is a Top 10 blockbuster movie chain. We’re playing top 10 product, and that’s our business, and there’s not a lot of programming creativity that goes into that,” he said in an interview earlier this week.

    It doesn’t sound like they are planning to change their selections to encompass what you desire. The larger theater chains are losing money showing what the masses want to see so I’d be curious how the art house theaters could make it under current circumstances. Isn’t streaming the primary manner in which lower demand films are showcased now? Houston used to have a multitude of independent theaters but even before the pandemic, they failed.

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