CHAMPAIGN — Four months earlier than expected, the Art Theater has a new owner. Or owners — 1,200 and rising — to be exact.
The Art Theater Cooperative and its first general manager, Austin McCann, took over the art movie house on Friday from former operator Sanford Hess.
Co-op owners — non-owners are welcome, too, and will pay the same admission and concession fees as owners — won't see many changes at the Art. At least at first.
"I need to get in the swing of things before I make any big changes," said McCann, who is in charge of programming as well as the business of running the art movie house.
He will continue to work with the same film buyer that Hess used; she helps with the acquisition of all films shown at the Art, including first-run independent films, which is the theater's main strength.
The Art Theater Co-op is the first co-operatively owned art movie house in the country. Its nine-member board of directors, led by David Thiel, believes it will serve as a model for other independent movie houses as they are forced to purchase costly digital projection systems as the industry moves to all-digital releases next year.
Many independent movie houses nationwide will not be able to afford the projection systems — the Art Theater Co-op will pay $80,000 for its — and are expected to close. Some, like the Onarga Theater and Harvest Moon Twin Drive-in Theatre in Gibson City, are having fundraisers and asking the public for donations so they can remain open.
Hess, who was making only a small profit at the Art, recommended in late 2011 that a community co-op form and take over the theater.
"Thanks to a supportive East Central Illinois community of film lovers, the Art Theater will survive," reads a news release from the co-op's board of directors. "The $100,000 in start-up funds, acquired in only eight months by the joining of 1,200 owners, will pay for the projector in full as well as a portion of the costs of the business transition."
The co-op is purchasing only the business, not the building that houses the theater. It is owned by David Kraft of Urbana.
The Art Theater Co-op continues to sell memberships for $65 each; owners will receive perks and benefits not available to non-owners.
For example, the co-op will have a grand opening celebration for owners with live music and drinks the first weekend of October.
"It will be an owners-only event where people will come into the space," McCann said. "It will give the owners more of a sense of ownership of the space itself."
McCann, who will turn 27 on Sept. 23, applied for the general manager position because he has always had a passion for film and an interest in the potential for cooperatives contributing to community development. He sees the cooperative business model as a way to avoid problems that plague for-profit businesses.
McCann also views the 99-year-old Art as a "powerful cultural institution" in the Champaign-Urbana area.
"It's basically the forum for people interested in film," he said. "In terms of movie theaters, we are the gateway to what people are able to see. There's a tremendous responsibility that comes with that."
McCann wants his programming to reflect the desires of the Art's owners. He also wants to present challenging films — without becoming stodgy or boring.
In addition to first-run indie films, McCann plans more screenings of documentaries that go beyond the talking head format and that are part of the history of film.
He programmed the Dangerous Docs Festival, which opens Friday, and for this week, the documentary "Queen of Versailles," which will alternate with the feature, "Farewell, My Queen," about Marie Antoinette.
"Queen of Versailles" is an American documentary about a billionaire family that experiences the financial crisis in a way that only billionaire families can, McCann said.
He also has a strong interest in world cinema, saying filmmakers in many countries are making great works that most moviegoers seldom have the chance to see.
He wants to show classic films, among them neo-realist ones from Italy, new wave films from France and Hollywood movies from the 1940s.
He dislikes the word classics, though.
"For me it's about the pleasure of experiencing these movies and trying to find the terminology that makes people want to seek them out," he said.
Along those lines, he is showing this week at the Art the 1947 black comedy "Monsieur Verdoux" directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin as an unemployed banker who makes money for his wife and child by marrying and then murdering wealthy widows.
The American public and press were hostile to the movie upon its release. But, "It's been rediscovered recently by film historians and audiences," McCann said.
As Hess has done, McCann will continue late-night screenings of cult classics, sci-fi and horror movies that generally attract younger viewers.
This week, the late-night screenings are "Monsieur Verdoux" and Steven Soderbergh's 2012 release, "Magic Mike," about a 19-year-old man who enters the world of stripping and is guided by a man who has been in the business for six years.
McCann is open to showing "popcorn movies"; he enjoys some of those at the multiplexes but said the single-screen Art, in an older building, provides a different experience to moviegoers.
He plans fewer screenings of movies of live performances such as opera, ballet and theater, saying he wants to experiment with the time slots that were set aside for them.
And as Hess did, McCann plans to continue scheduling film festivals.
Following Dangerous Docs will be the Latin American Film Festival, organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois.
McCann also plans to show silent films with live accompaniment by local musicians. He's already talked with musicians about that.
A member of the C-U Film Society, McCann wants the Art Theater Co-op to be as supportive as possible of local filmmakers.
"I'm open to ideas from them," he said.
And from everyone, particularly co-op owners.
"Please, when you have ideas, talk," he said. "Conversation can be very important to art, specifically when you're planning something different that challenges expectations."
McCann moved to Urbana two years ago to work in an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) position as the primary development person at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. There, he did mainly grant writing and program management. He no longer is working with the IMC in a formal capacity; the general manager position at the Art is full-time.
Born in Cleveland, McCann moved with his parents, who both work in public education, to the Tampa Bay area in Florida when he was 2. McCann studied anthropology and theater at the New College, an honors experimental public liberal arts college in Sarasota, Fla.