OAKHURST -- A little more than 18 months ago, the five-screen Met Cinema sat empty, which meant residents in the small community nestled just south of Yosemite National Park had to travel to Fresno if they wanted to see the latest movies.
An inventive plan by three local film fans -- Matt Sconce, James Nelson and Keith Walker -- not only reopened the theater but has become a model for other struggling film complexes across the United States and some foreign countries.
And, if the theaters dramatic return wasn't enough, it made history Sunday night by hosting a screening of "Planes: Fire & Rescue" for domestic and international journalists. Disney Studios decided to hold its press junket for the new animated film at Yosemite National Park to keep with the theme of the movie and used the Oakhurst theater. Generally, movie junkets are held in major cities such as Los Angeles, New York or London.
"We got a call about a month ago saying that they were looking for a theater near Yosemite," Sconce says just before journalists from seven foreign countries and the United States arrived for the screening.
"Planes: Fire & Rescue" -- a sequel to the 2013 film "Planes"-- picks up the story of high flying Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook). When a mechanical problem makes it look like the speedster may never be able to race again, he volunteers to become a fire-fighting plane and heads off to a national park for training.
The film opens nationwide July 18.
Sconce sees the irony in the Disney movie debuting in his theater.
"When we started this idea a lot of studios told us we would fail. There were also several studios that wouldn't let us show their movies. Just under a year of our opening, we got the last three studios to agree to let us show their movies," Sconce says.
The plan that saved the Met involves a membership fee. Instead of charging patrons for each screening, the theater charges a monthly fee of $19.95. Members can see between 8-12 new movies each month and have the option to buy additional tickets if they want to see a film again.
To make the plan work, 3,000 memberships had to be sold. The owners were optimistic because there are approximately 20,000 households in the Oakhurst area, plus an average of 1.4 million visitors who enter the national park through the south gate near Oakhurst each year.
Sconce says they not only hit their goal, but their membership have grown to 4,000. It's an active membership. The Motion Picture Association of America estimated the average person saw six movies in 2013. Sconce says that local moviegoers see an average of six times the national average.
Other companies have tried similar plans that failed. Word of the success in Oakhurst has spread and Sconce says they have received inquiries from theaters across the country, and even Australia. The Met team has been so successful with their program that they have been asked to speak at national theater conventions.
Along with the Oakhurst theater, they also run similar programs in Avenal, Coalinga and Red Bluff.
Disney selected Yosemite for the "Planes: Fire & Rescue" junket because it tells the story of a group of fire-fighting planes and because of the park's 150th anniversary celebration. Press attending the film junket spent Monday interviewing cast and crew of the film and attended the formal ceremonies for the park's anniversary.