SOUTH TAMPA — The hole in Britton Plaza was conspicuous and vacuous. The Britton 8, a movie theater with art deco styling, anchors the shopping center just north of Gandy Boulevard on Dale Mabry Highway. For years, the retail chains, boutiques and restaurants that flank the cinema depended on the theater like remoras on a shark. Moviegoers bought candy and drinks from the News Stand next door. They ordered barbecue sandwiches and potato salad from Pitmasters a few doors down on "dinner and movie" nights.
But last year, as it has done repeatedly since it opened in 1956, it closed, starving surrounding businesses of foot traffic, already in decline because of the recession. Now, business owners have grown optimistic again with the resurrection of the Britton 8 — this time with a bold plan that aims to capitalize on ethnic tastes and thin wallets.
The Britton 8 quietly reopened last week with second-run movies for $2 and concessions that sell candy, popcorn and sodas for the same price or less. It also devoted one of the movie's eight theaters to brand-new Indian movies, catering to Bollywood fans and the area's growing South Asian population. Those films cost $10.
The theater is planning a grand opening in a week or two as it works out bugs and hires staff.
"I think I might have to get some Indian appetizers (to sell) if it pans out," said David Kleiner, owner of Pitmasters, whose slogan is "Southern BBQ from the Heart."
"Nothing wrong with catering to the market."
Three South Asian businessmen have leased the movie theater for six years. They've fixed the leaky roof, replaced soda machines and projector bulbs and scrubbed seats and curtains three times.
While movies in Hindi, Tamil and other Indian languages might make the Britton 8 seem distinctive compared with other area cinemas, co-owner Prasanth Choudary said the theater markets itself as a discount cinema that predominantly shows Hollywood films.
"Playing Indian movies is not our core business," he said. "Playing American movies is what we depend on."
But, he said, the theater wants to add a little masala, or Indian spice, to the theater, even aspiring to sell Indian snacks such as potato-stuffed samosas in the concession stand someday.
Indian movies in Tampa last aired at Channelside Cinemas 10, but they will move to Britton 8 because the local distributor is one of Choudary's business partners.
According to the Census Bureau, the Indian population in the Tampa Bay metro area grew by nearly 2 percent between 2004 and 2007 to 22,850. Indian residents make up the majority of people of Asian descent in the region.
The growing customer base explains why the theater owners have mixed in a movie poster for a Kambakkht Ishq among advertisements for A Perfect Getaway, The Proposal and Transformers in the theater's hallway, all movies they plan to show soon.
This weekend, the theater will show this year's Academy Award-winning Best Picture Slumdog Millionaire, as well as Night at the Museum, Public Enemies, Bruno, Land of the Lost, I Love You, Beth Cooper and Kaminey, a new Bollywood film.
Choudary said he hopes to show first-run Hollywood movies soon, which will bump up the theater's temporarily low ticket prices. Still, the goal will be to keep prices below the competition.
"We want to be much cheaper than any of these chain theaters," Choudary said. "One of the reasons people stop going to the movies is because theaters are too expensive and concessions are too expensive and many people can't watch a movie with their family."
Choudary, who also owns the Jaya India Mart, a food and specialty store on 56th Street, has never managed a theater before. But he said he has always been drawn to the cinema. He grew up on Jurassic Park, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Company, a Hindi movie about the Mumbai underworld.
He owns a Bose home theater system and a 52-inch Sony television that has served his movie addiction until last week, when the Britton 8 projectors began rolling again in South Tampa.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.