Movie Theater to Be Given Away in Essay-Writing Contest

Temple Theater Exterior - P 2015
Christopher A. Mills

Temple Theater Exterior - P 2015

The 98-year-old Temple Theatre in a small town in Maine features two screens, 400 seats, office space and an apartment.

The deadline to win a $350,000 movie theater will be extended through the end of January — which is good news, especially for those who didn't know such a contest even existed.

For several weeks now, Mike Hurley has been promoting an essay-writing contest whereby the winner gets possession of his two-screen movie theater in Houlton, Maine (population: 6,300).

The contest was supposed to end on Jan. 15, but he told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday that he'll extend the deadline by at least two weeks to take advantage of an expected surge in free press.

Hurley has already tried to sell the property, but found no takers, so instead he'll give it to the person who writes the best 250-word essay about why they should be the new owner of the Temple Theatre.

It's not charity, as Hurley is collecting $100 per entry and has set a 3,500 minimum of entries, ensuring he'll get his asking price. If he doesn't get at least close to that many, he'll refund the money. So far, only 200 people have submitted essays, but he isn't worried.

"We've talked to people who have done this, and they tell us most of the submissions come at the last minute, just before deadline," he says.

In fact, there have been several recent examples of similar giveaways of restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and other businesses, and they are considered legal alternatives to traditional sales techniques.

Hurley acquired the theater a dozen years ago "for almost nothing," then spent $200,000 to renovate it. He purchased it after reading about the previous owner shutting it down. In the newspaper photo, the theater's marquee carried the message: "Thanks for your lack of support!"

"I drove 152-and-half miles to look at it, and fell in love," he says.

In fact, Hurley was already a theater owner in Belfast, Maine, where he still lives, and he also owns Fiberglass Farm, a business that makes bobble-head figurines, including the eight-foot-tall Tommy Lasorda at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

His decision to move on from the Temple Theatre was spurred by the upcoming resignation of his manager, whom Hurley describes as an indispensable jack-of-all trades. "I built the success of the theater on that guy, and I don't want to train someone else," says Hurley, 65.

Hurley says he'll also be selling his Colonial Theatre in Belfast, though via traditional means. As a young adult, he saw Star Wars there in 1977, then purchased the movie-house later. Now he says J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is building a summer home in Camden, just 10 miles away from him. Fitting, he says, because that blockbuster movie is proof of the health of the movie exhibition business.

He says he "makes a ton of money" on concessions at his Temple Theatre, where a small popcorn is still under $2 and Wednesdays are free popcorn nights (bring your own bowl). He upgraded to digital projection more than a year ago, so the new owner won't need to do much renovating, if any.

The 98-year-old Temple Theater is housed in a three-story building, though Hurley owns (and is therefore giving away) only the first two floors. Each screen comes with a balcony and seats 200. The second floor consists of 4,200 square feet of office space and a 2,000 square-foot apartment, where his manager lives.

He and some staffers in Belfast will read all of the essays, then send the 20 best to a secret panel of three in Houlton. "Local people able to judge good writing should make the final decision," he says.

Assuming, of course, he finds 3,500 people willing to give it a shot.