Pass the popcorn and Skittles

By Matt Villano

The multigenerational family behind ACX Cinemas

This family of entrepreneurs is all about entertainment and creating, shall we say, a unique experience.

The family business is evolving from movie theaters to experienced-based entertainment, and the next wave of ACX destinations will include video games and bowling.

According to Andrea Barstow-Olson, executive vice president of marketing and partnerships, the company’s steady growth over the last decade is a testament to the foundation that her parents established 35 years ago. She adds that despite challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, ACX theaters are back and better than ever.

“What we do brings people together in ways like nothing else,” she says. “There’s a romanticism around entertainment and the movies that is very special and very unique.”

ACX began as most family businesses do — modestly.

Bill and Colleen Barstow started the business with a single-screen theater in Plattsmouth, Neb., in 1988. The company was called Main Street Theaters back then, with the idea being that the family would take over theaters on the main street in small towns across the Midwest.

Gradually, over the years, ACX expanded, diversifying the portfolio to include other old single-screen theaters and multiscreen entertainment meccas.

Today ACX operates three theaters in Nebraska, one in Iowa, and a fifth — the newest — in Chicago.

One common characteristic of all five theaters: the kind of luxurious and comfortable seating you might find in a millionaire’s private screening room. The newer theaters also have restaurants branded as Backlot Pizza + Kitchen.

Michael Barstow, executive vice president and Andrea’s brother, has run point on the Chicago theater — a takeover of a 110-year-old theater in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side. The theater is on the National Register of Historic Places. The owner, the University of Chicago, sought out ACX as the company to run it.

“Especially coming out of the pandemic, there aren’t many companies that do what we do,” says Barstow. “They knew we would take good care of the property and set it up for success.”

Barstow notes that he and his father still negotiate deals together. He adds that his mother is the only woman on the board of directors of the National Association of Theater Owners, a nonprofit composed of owners of independent movie theaters. In other words, the extended family is still very involved.

That involvement certainly has helped the next project — an ACX Cinemas destination that will be the largest to date and will open later this summer in a suburb of Milwaukee. This facility will be a 42,951-square-foot full-fledged entertainment hotspot, complete with a multiscreen theater, gaming and bowling, as well as a bar and a full-service restaurant serving Detroit-style pizza.

“As the entertainment industry evolves, so must we,” Barstow-Olson says.

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