Web posted Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bear Tooth goes all in with 3D, digital

By Andrew Jensen
Alaska Journal of Commerce

  Bear Tooth Grill and Theatrepub owners Matt Jones, Rod Hancock and Warren Hancock are in the middle of an extensive renovation that includes a conversion to digital format with 3D capability Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC   

For a lawyer and a software engineer, Matt Jones and Rod Hancock make pretty good restaurateurs.

In business in Anchorage since opening the Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria in 1996, Jones and Hancock celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Bear Tooth Grill in April and are embarking on a full-scale renovation and conversion from film to digital format with 3D capability by September at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.

What began as a plan to replace the aging seats with plush new accommodations at the Theatrepub, which offers second-run movies for $3 and a full food and drink menu during showings, has evolved into a $300,000 project.

"What we're trying to offer is a first-run experience at a second-run price," Hancock said. "You get that because we offer all the benefits and extras of a family fun environment with a first-run experience."

For Jones, Hancock and his brother Warren Hancock, also an owner, a runaway remodeling project is nothing new at the 265-seat Bear Tooth Theatrepub.

They bought the building in 2000 and have been reworking it ever since. In contrast to the 21-and-up Portland, Ore., theatre pubs they fell in love with while in school at the University of Washington, Jones and Hancock wanted a family-friendly business.

They added a 125-seat, alcohol-free balcony for teenagers and for parents with small children to enjoy kids movies. The current seats, plucked from the closed University Theater and the third set since Bear Tooth opened, have started to break down.

The film projector is nearly 50 years old, and runs on technology at least 75 years old. Although "film still holds up surprisingly well," compared to digital, Hancock said, upgrading the sound system had become a priority as the home theater experience has evolved to a higher level with high definition, flat screens, surround sound and BluRay players.

"The movie experience, by current standards, had dropped," Rod Hancock said.

After debating the cost of digital conversion for a few years and watching the latest 3D craze unfold after the billion-dollar success of Avatar last summer, holding on to the family market share became the decisive factor in going to 3D.

"Family driven products do incredibly well," Rod Hancock said. "One of our largest market segments was going to 3D. It started to all make sense."

Operating a second-run theater in Alaska brings many of the same challenges that affect all businesses in the state. Shipping the heavy film canisters to and from distributors can cost $80 each way, compared to the lightweight digital hard drives that simply plug into the system.

Theatre facility manager Rand Thornsley, who's been in the movie business for more than 30 years, said the digital conversion can pay for itself in shipping savings over 10 years.

Movie studios are keen on digital conversion, which will save them millions in film costs.

There will also likely be an increase in ticket prices, perhaps from $3 to $4 for a standard second-run movie, a $2 increase for reserved seating and a higher premium for 3D showings.

Bear Tooth has charged $3 for movies since the theatre opened in 2002 and its only second-run competitor, the Fireweed Theater, will be closing soon.

The Bear Tooth is waiting in line behind theaters across the nation that are also upgrading to 3D. Converting to 3D means replacing the screen, which is a greater challenge than it may seem. The 3D screen must curve inward and scaffolding is needed at the edges to hold it in place. Once it's in place, the Bear Tooth may have the largest single screen in Alaska.

Building a brand

Rod Hancock had never worked in a restaurant before opening Moose's Tooth. All he knew about microbrewing was that he liked beer.

Jones, who attended Service High School in Anchorage before college at UW, had planned on being an environmental lawyer but was more fascinated by how his favorite Portland pubs crafted their brews.

Hancock had a job lined up at Microsoft, but neither he nor Jones, both avid outdoorsmen, envisioned themselves working a daily grind for 12 months a year with two weeks vacation.

"We wanted the independence and the lifestyle," Hancock said.

Warren Hancock was a teacher who came up to Anchorage to help with Moose's Tooth in the summer. He said he might try to find a teaching gig in town.

His brother chuckled at the memory.

"Yeah, he never ended up teaching," Rod Hancock said.

The Moose's Tooth brewery was "Matt's baby," Rod said, and he dedicated himself to developing the signature pizzas.

"I would cook pizzas every night," he said. "It was fun."

Jones and Hancock quickly had a full kitchen staff, many still with them more than 10 years later and who have also contributed mightily to the homemade menus at Bear Tooth and Moose's Tooth, so named for neighboring mountains in the Alaska Range.

Lovers of live music, Jones and Hancock started their "First Tap" parties when introducing a new brew every three months with a local band for entertainment.

"At first they were some really crazy parties," Hancock said. "Then we started running out of local bands."

The trio got into the production business, booking national acts into Bear Tooth and other Anchorage venues. The theatre converts to a live music venue by removing the tables and seats. The Anchorage music scene has benefited in its reputation; Korn approached them about booking a pair of shows and sold 8,000 tickets at the Dena'ina Center in late March.

The Anchorage music scene has also gotten more sophisticated with more tunes available online, which allows the audience to check out bands they may not have heard of before buying tickets.

The theatrepub was always the ultimate goal for Jones and Hancock, one put off for more than six years because of the physical and financial challenges of opening Moose's Tooth. The vision of transforming the old theater and by extension the Spenard area will reach an ultimate Hollywood ending this fall.

"We never lost sight of it," Rod Hancock said. "We were able to realize our dream."

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen.@alaskajournal.com.