On March 8, Sean Nekhaila, the new co-owner of the Tavernier Cinema 5, looked on in amusement at moviegoers from behind the food counter. A couple who had just bought tickets to “The Batman” had bought popcorn and were joking around.
“Hey, are you going to give me some of that?” the man asked his female companion.
“No,” she replied. She clutched the overflowing bag of popcorn to her chest with a mischievous glint in her eye and tiptoed away.
“Give me a small popcorn then,” he said to the theater’s counter staff, sighing in mock exasperation.
Such moments are exactly what the Nekhaila family wanted to see after finalizing their purchase of the Tavernier Cinema 5 three weeks prior from the B&B Theatres franchise, the sixth largest cinema chain in the U.S.
The Islamorada-based Nekhaila family also own other businesses in the Keys (Island Grill, Dairy Queen, Wendy’s) and in other states, so they are used to the idea of expanding their empire. But Sean pointed out a sentimental reason to purchase the theater.
“My dad wanted to revive it for locals to have something to do on the weekends and feel safe,” he said. “No one was coming. B&B closed it down during COVID and the movie theater business was slower. But when (locals) know a local operator runs it, they’ll come in.”
Tavernier Cinema 5’s new owner, and Sean’s father, is Sam Nekhaila. He agreed with his son about the movie theater business recently being tough on franchises.
“B&B decided to pull out of the Keys,” Sam said. “I was the original owner, and I was approached or it would have closed. I decided we would take the time to make a beautiful cinema and return it to the community. There isn’t much to do for the kids and the elderly who may not be boating enthusiasts. It’s a nice few hours to spend in a cool environment with digital projection and Dolby surround sound. We owned the cinema from 1991 to 2001 as a two-plex, then expanded as a five-plex in 2001, which took about a year and half to construct. In 2009, I diversified my business, and I was no longer able to dedicate the time to the cinema in 2009. So I sold it to the operator B&B.”
Sam is happy with their purchase, as he has fond memories of the previous time he owned the cinema. “Seeing happy faces and kids enjoying animated movies like ‘Avatar’ and ‘Toy Story’ brought me joy,” he said.
Sean also has good memories from that time, during which he was a young boy going to Upper Keys schools.
“I was in the background as an 8-year-old and watching how things work, such as the 3D projector. That was cool,” he said.
Father and son also agree on their all-time favorite movie: The Spider-Man film series. But please, not with Andrew Garfield as Spidey.
“Tobey Maguire is the best,” Sean said, smiling.
Tavernier Cinema 5 re-opened on March 1. New food offerings include hot dogs, pizza, hamburgers and pretzels served by the same staff. For upcoming movie-showing schedules, go to the new website at taverniercinema5.com.