ACX Cinemas Bucks Trends: Expands to Other States as Theater Chains Struggle Post-Pandemic

Bill and Colleen Barstow started what was to become ACX Cinemas with one single-screen theater in Plattsmouth and, in its 35 years, its entertainment venue portfolio has grown to span Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin – with more locations and concepts on the way.

Born out of Aksarben Cinema, the ACX brand pays homage to its premium, large-format (PLF) auditorium in Omaha, according to Executive Vice President Michael Barstow.

The name was also applied to the development of its theater at 204th and Q streets in Elkhorn.

“So, the name ACX Cinema 12+ came to be,” he said. “From there, we decided as a family it was time to re-brand Main Street Theatres as ACX Cinemas after our company had gone through a kind of re-birth in 2020.”

Via company information, the independent theater chain’s initial beginnings occurred while Bill Barstow was in the military, serving as a staff sergeant at Offutt Air Force Base. He and wife, Colleen, bought the single-screen on a land contract, borrowing $1,200 for the down payment over three separate credit cards.

Photography by Debra S. Kaplan
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

Following Bill Barstow’s eight and a half years in the U.S. Air Force as a weather forecaster, the couple decided to focus 100% on the “business of movies.” Today, in addition to Michael, daughter Andrea Barstow-Olson serves as EVP of marketing and partnerships.

“I joined the company officially as my sole occupation back in 2017,” Michael Barstow explained. “I was living in Chicago after working a couple of corporate-type jobs after graduating from college at the University of Michigan.”

- Advertisement -
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

Now leading the company’s expansion efforts, Barstow recalled: “I was getting burned out and finally asked myself why I was working for these other companies when I could be working for the family business I had grown up with.”

Beyond being in the “business of movies,” ACX Cinemas characterizes itself as an “experience-based entertainment company.”

“Whether you want to spend a couple hours catching a new blockbuster in one of our heated recliners, having a Detroit-style pizza at one of our restaurants with your family, or drinking a craft cocktail while bowling at our location in Milwaukee, we want you to be entertained and walk away already thinking about your next visit,” Barstow said of this differentiator.

In fact, the Wisconsin complex is among its newest developments. The space at Bayshore Mall encompasses a half-dozen screens, gaming and bowling, and food and rink with its Backlot Pizza+Kitchen restaurant and bar concept, headlined by its Detroit-style pizza.

“Milwaukee felt like a natural growth from Omaha with our Midwestern roots,” he said. “I live in Chicago. So, it is a short commute for me to oversee project management and operations.”

Photography by Debra S. Kaplan
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

Additionally, Barstow described its location in the Bayshore mixed-use shopping center as undergoing a massive transformation with opportunities to eat, work and play in one space.

Other new developments include taking over the operations and renovations of the historic Harper Theater in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

“I have been working with a broker for a few years as we had been looking at the Chicago market for a while,” Barstow said. “We stumbled upon the Harper and the family fell in love with the historic theater and Hyde Park.”

In fact, Barstow said it felt like the hometown theaters where the family got its start.

“It was a great summer kickoff for us there and we are looking forward to a holiday season that has something for everyone,” he stated.

Spotlight on Future Concepts, Locales

At a time when the company noted many other theater chains are struggling to bounce back after the pandemic, ACX Cinemas shows no signs of slowing down.

Photography by Debra S. Kaplan
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

“We are opening a theater in the Blue Ash suburb of Cincinnati,” Barstow said, adding that the location will boast seven auditoriums and a Backlot Pizza + Kitchen/Backlot Taphouse. “In Chicago, we are currently under construction for an Inkwell cocktail bar in the West Loop.”

The latter location will be a sister bar to Inkwell in Omaha at Countryside Village.

“We are constantly evolving our food and beverage offerings,” Barstow said, when asked about his vision for experiences/amenities going forward. “We like to try new things and see what works.  If there is a story to tell or a perfect tie-in with a movie, we love diving into that.”

The family also recently opened a new concept in the Bayshore complex, Buchanan’s, which features a UK-inspired menu.

Photography by Debra S. Kaplan
Photography by Debra S. Kaplan

No stranger to trying new offerings, Barstow addressed its rollout of “sensory-friendly” viewings with brighter lights and quieter sounds for families with children of diverse abilities, such as autism and epilepsy.

“We love being able to make the movie-going experience comfortable and memorable for all of our guests,” he said, noting that sister, Andrea Barstow-Olson, will connect with support groups and offer such viewings when they express interest. “We get such positive feedback on them and love being able to offer them to our community.”

Barstow said giving back has always been a “pillar” of the company.

“We have deep relationships with some local nonprofits and schools, such as Angels Among Us, JDRF, and University of Nebraska Omaha,” he said. “We are an entry-level employer and love being a kid’s first job.

“It is a great place to work on communication skills, working together as a team, and free movies are a good bonus.”

The second-generation leader reflected on the company’s humble roots.

“I am not sure back then they realized what it would grow into and how it would become a full-family business with my siblings and I all involved,” he said.  “It is pretty cool to be a part of something that is so engrained in our social culture and local communities.”