‘It feels like home here’: Dubuque movie theater continues success at 5-year mark

Dubuque’s Phoenix Theatres

Address: 555 John F. Kennedy Road, No. 105.

Employees: More than 30.

Phone: 563-556-0077.

Online: phoenixmovies.net/theatres/kennedy-mall/004

Other locations: Four in Michigan, one in Ohio, one in Massachusetts.

Since opening its doors five years ago, Dubuque’s six-screen movie theater has welcomed more than 850,000 customers.

Phoenix Theatres, a Michigan-based movie theater company formed 23 years ago, opened its Dubuque location behind Kennedy Mall in April 2018 in the former Mindframe Theater space. It was the company’s first location outside Michigan.

“The Dubuque market is a fantastic place to do business, and we’re established now,” said Cory Jacobson, president and owner of Phoenix Theatres. “…I think (going to the movies) inspires people. If we don’t have people step up to recognize the cultural importance of movies, we’d be in a dark place. I have to believe that the next James Cameron or Steven Spielberg is in that crowd.”

Jacobson worked in the movie theater industry previously before breaking out on his own to start Phoenix Theatres. Over the years, the company has invested in its locations, including putting recliner seats in its movie theaters in 2014 — a concept that was only available in big cities at the time — to enhance its customer experience.

“That exceeded our expectations,” he said of the seats. “When you tell a bank you have an idea to halve the number of seats to double the number of people in those seats, that’s a hard concept for a bank to understand. But it was very successful.”

Jacobson said he began thinking about a Dubuque location after hearing about the former Mindframe Theatres space from an official from Cafaro Co., which owned the building that housed Phoenix Theatres’ Monroe, Mich., location. Cafaro Co. also owns the building of the Dubuque location.

“When we opened the (Dubuque) theater, we had all the ideas we’d come up with in the past 10 years that we could bring to this location,” said Tearis Reid, Phoenix Theatres vice president of operations. “The digital show signs, the dual concessions, the candy racks. When we opened (in Dubuque), this was the first location that had all our good ideas.”

Phoenix Theatres operated for about two years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, which prompted theaters everywhere to close their doors and movie studios to hold off on releasing new films.

In August 2020, the company announced the Kennedy Mall location would be the first of its theaters to reopen with added social distancing and other safety guidelines in place.

“There were three aspects to reopening that were a lot easier (in Dubuque),” Reid said. “One, the film studios needed to be putting out products. Two, we needed to follow any state regulations. Three, the customers needed to feel comfortable coming back.”

Jacobson said the company worked with the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, which connected representatives from the business with Iowa legislators to discuss the funding needed for the theaters to stay afloat while navigating pandemic-related challenges.

But it was the success of “Top Gun: Maverick,” released in May 2022, that really helped people come back to theaters, Jacobson said.

“Here, that movie opened with so much enthusiasm,” Jacobson said. “It went on to be the highest-grossing movie here in the Dubuque market (for us). After those dark days, that movie was the catalyst to going back to normalcy.”

“Top Gun: Maverick” was followed by other movies that fueled strong viewership at the Dubuque theater, such as “Elvis,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” “Where the Crawdads Sing” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” for which the theater installed enhanced equipment and 3D capabilities to show.

This year, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” also garnered high attendance.

“It was the first time in my 40 years in the movie theater business that two films (“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”) with such diverse audiences buying tickets for both shows,” Jacobson said. “…It just worked past our wildest expectations.”

Last month, Brock Daack was hired as the new general manager for Dubuque’s Phoenix theater location. He has been working at the theater since 2019, when he was a sophomore in high school.

“I got to come in after school and pop popcorn and do something for the theater,” he said. “I got to interact with the community more, getting to know customers.”

Daack said he has watched the theater grow since its Dubuque debut.

“It’s affordable,” he said of watching movies there. “You can’t hardly go anywhere anymore that has a $5 ticket (for matinee screenings). It feels like home here. It’s a great group of people.”

A future goal for the theater’s Dubuque location is expanding beyond its six screens.

Jacobson said expansion plans made in 2019 were stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, he said those discussions will resume.

Jordan Hohman, Phoenix Theatres vice president of project development, added that a Phoenix Theatres expansion became necessary following the pandemic and an increase in market share.

“It’s necessary to expand the business,” Hohman said. “We’re hitting capacity issues. We have resources today that we didn’t have in 2019, and we’re in a shifting economic world. An expansion is now necessary rather than just nice to have.”