Let's save the Art Theater
On Sunday I and 40 other folks attended Art Theater operator Sanford Hess’s presentation, "The State of the Art," in which he recommended that a co-operative form to take over the Art Theater.
As at least one person in the audience said, the independent movie-house in downtown Champaign is valuable to the cultural life of this community. I hope people get behind this.
Here is the full story I did on Hess’s talk, published in today’s print version of The News-Gazette. Look for more information on this in the near future:
CHAMPAIGN — Now more than half way through his lease as operator of the Art Theater, Sanford Hess recommends that a community cooperative is formed to take over and operate the independent-movie house.
During his "The State of the Art" presentation on Sunday, Hess said he cannot sustain the status quo. The theater has not made enough money for him to pay himself back the money he loaned the Art Theater Inc its initial stages. He took over the theater in January 2010 from operator Greg Boardman.
"I work pretty hard on this and a lot of it’s unpaid, with the company not generating enough money to pay me," said Hess, who said he has spent his own cash four times to keep the theater going.
Hess said a private individual could take over the Art and that he would be willing to help that person.
But he said the most likely scenario for sustaining the independent-movie house over the long haul is to have it become a theater co-operative, one that would be communally owned by its customers.
"The customers buy into the co-op," he said. "They get discounts and special events."
He cited as models the Common Ground Food Co-op in Urbana, which recently finished a successful loan drive for an expansion, and the Morris Theatre in Morris, Minn., as models.
"It’s not necessarily new ground for a theater to be run by a co-operative," Hess said. While doing research, he found a few out there; the more common owners of older theater houses like the Virginia are park districts or city governments, he said.
If a co-op forms, it would buy the Art Theater equipment from Hess and could sublet the lease he has on the building with owner David Kraft.
The first steps would be to identify people who would be willing to serve on an Art Theater co-op board of directors. Hess joked that a "small cabal" is interested.
It includes Urbana resident Ben Galewsky, chair of the Common Ground board, who has talked with Hess about the co-op model. Galewsky said on Sunday he is willing to be a board member but no chair of the theater co-op, which would be a separate and unrelated entity to Common Ground.
Four or five of the 40 other folks who attended Hess’s talk also expressed interest in helping form a theater co-op.
The board would sign up owners, raise money, hire a general manager and determine membership fees and benefits. Hess would give no estimate himself on fees; the Morris Theatre Cooperative’s membership is $250, according to its website.
"A co-op is not in business to earn tons of cash," Hess said. "I got into this business because I wanted to but also to earn a profit."
Hess would like to see a co-op take over the Art Theater by the end of 2012, when his current lease expires. The rent will then increase, according to the rental agreement Hess worked out with Kraft.
A couple of people who attended Hess’s talk said to make a theater co-operative viable, the co-op would have to buy the building.
Hess said building new would be cheaper, and that former movie buildings in town have drawbacks, mainly in requiring extensive renovation or new equipment.
"The beauty of the Art is it’s a good place to see a movie, a good space, already in operation," he said.
Hess moved to Champaign just three years ago but said he has many fond feelings for the Art Theater.
"Like many of you, I want to keep the theater going," he said Sunday.
Though not robust, the Art is growing and generating profits more regularly, said Hess, who displayed business charts that show a pattern of peaks and valleys in ticket sales.
"The key is if you get the right movie, people will come out and see it," he said. "If we don’t have the right movie we can’t force people to come in and see it."
And Hess said the Art can’t get every movie it wants.
"If the multiplex gets it, generally we can’t get it," he said. "And we can’t tell what films will do well. I think we’re getting better."
He said a recent successful move was to show a number of different films in a week. "That’s good for business and it draws different people out in the same week," he said.
The key to doing that is having digital equipment. The movie industry projects that by 2012 or ‘13, 35mm prints will no longer be produced and all movie houses will project high-resolution digital films. To be compliant with the new industry standards as well as to show 3-D movies, the Art will need a new digital project system. Hess estimates that will cost $70,000.
Hess said he plans to give more information soon on the movement to turn the Art into a cooperative. People who are interested in helping may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.