The best family-friendly movie events in Pittsburgh
Movie night with the kids means a trip to the theater for some snacks and the latest G or PG-rated flick. But rising ticket and concession prices can dampen the beloved tradition for parents on a budget. As a result, some independent theaters in Pittsburgh are working to make the theater-going experience for families and kids more affordable, fun and fulfilling.
One such venue is the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. Since the 90-year-old one-screen movie house re-opened in 2011, executive director Chad Hunter and his board have worked to provide eclectic programming for a variety of audiences, including kids and families. As a self-proclaimed community theater, they also try to make their events accessible to everyone.
“We try to keep our prices down so that it encourages families who don’t have $50 to spend on a movie,” says Hunter. “Instead, they can get their kids in for $6 and maybe spend $5 on popcorn or a soda.”
The Hollywood consistently works to host family-friendly entertainment, including matinees and special events like the Follow That Bird screening they hosted last year, which featured a guest appearance by Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney.
A sizable portion of their business also comes from hosting private birthday parties, where kids can watch whatever movie they want on the big screen.
“I would say upwards of 75 percent of our Saturday and Sunday early mornings and afternoons are rented out for children’s birthday parties,” says Hunter. “We have a real niche with that.”
On May 21st, the theater hopes to bring in a younger crowd with The Year that Was: 1948. Sponsored by the theater’s concession supplier Gold Medal and the Dormont Historical Society, the day-long event will feature prices the theater would have offered in 1948. Among the festivities are an organ performance by Dale Abraham, cartoons, serials and a screening of the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
“That was an era where kids would go to the movie theater for not very much money at all,” says Hunter. “We did some research and ticket prices at the time were 25 cents for kids 12 and under, and 40 cents for adults. It’s got a cool hook to it, so I think that’s going to be a ton of fun.”
Row House Cinema
While the Hollywood enjoys its decades-long legacy, another single-screen theater has made a name for itself in just under two years. Since opening in 2014, the Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville has rolled out rotating week-long programs honoring different directors, genres and themes. Over the course of a single month, audiences could enjoy anything from a Richard Linklater retrospective to a curated selection of classic monster movies.
The ever-changing roster always makes time for youngsters and the young-at-heart with its Kids Will Be Kids Shows. The designated events, usually held on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, offers kid-friendly films in a kid-friendly environment. Because Row House specializes in older films, the screenings also offer the rare chance to expose a new generation to see family classics on the big screen.
“Showing older movies means we get to give parents and guardians the opportunity to share some of their favorite childhood movies with the next generation,” says Row House event coordinator Molly Ebert. “It’s an opportunity to bond, reminisce and maybe create some new memories. Who knows, maybe a movie like The Goonies or E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial will become a kid’s own childhood favorite.”
Last February, Row House branched into newer film territory with the Inside Out Fun Family Party. Focused around the 2015 Disney-Pixar animated feature, the event included face painting and cupcake decorating with custom baker Yummyholic. The concession stand also offered popcorn and juice box deals priced especially for kids.
The theater plans to host more movie-themed events over the summer. As part of its Fauna Flicks series this month, Row House will show the animated classic An American Tale from May 13th through May 19th.
“We try to plan the events in relation to the movies that we’re showing,” says Ebert. “I can’t give away too much yet, but we’re thinking Pajama Party screenings, ice cream and more.”
A trip to a local movie theater could also mean helping kids in some capacity. In 2012, Hollywood Theater president Colin Mathews created Steel City Secret Cinema, a bi-annual event combining film, local beer and screen-printed poster art to raise money for local charities. Last year, Matthews re-branded the event as Cinema 412, and continued hosting fundraising movie events at the Hollywood every two months.
Past Steel City Secret Cinema and Cinema 412 events have benefited children’s charities such as the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Beverly’s Birthdays. Proceeds from the Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit screening, which took place last February, went toward Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh.
After the upcoming Cinema 412 screening of Fargo this June, Matthews would like to concentrate more on children’s charities.
“I like to show animated films and I like to do what I can to bring kids to the theater,” says Matthews. “But ultimately, my focus after the last screening in June is more on charities that kids are the beneficiaries of.”
In keeping with the Hollywood’s role as a community-minded theater, Matthews and Hunter also launched a STEM movies series earlier this year. Created with a grant from the Google Foundation, and through a partnership the Keystone Oaks School District, the new program offers free monthly STEM-themed screenings, complete with expert speakers, to area middle-school children. So far, the series has presented films such as the robotics documentary Spare Parts, which included an introduction by roboticist and BirdBrain Technologies founder Tom Lauwers.
Even with the philanthropic and education angles, independent theaters still face challenges when it comes to luring people from more convenient movie streaming services like Netflix or Hulu. Whatever the event, Matthews understands extra incentives are key to keeping kids coming back to the big screen.
“It’s really about, in the space of the theater, how do you keep the kids’ interests,” says Matthews. “That’s usually hands-on stuff, games, entertainment – stuff that really makes them say, hey, I had a fun time, and then tell their parents they want to go back.”