Monday, April 13, 2015

What if more movie theaters were non-profit?

The caretakers of the Loew's Jersey Theater think it has
a future as a multimedia, non-profit venue. 
Weeks ago, the Center Cinema theater in Sunnyside closed down. It wasn't the greatest of movie theaters, and I have no fond memories of it from my childhood (or my adulthood, for that matter), but it was local, a neighborhood theater still trying to compete against the AMCs and Regals of the world, and it was part of a number of theaters in Queens and Nassau County over the past five years that I've seen bite the dust.

I accept that this is the way of the world. Nothing lasts forever, and theaters like the Jackson, as much as they may be cherished by people like me as touchstones of our youth, cannot continue to get by on nostalgia and warm fuzzy feelings, especially when the corporate theater chains will have the edge 99 times out of 100. Still, seeing more neighborhood theaters go under lately is disturbing, and not just here in Queens: ask the Bronx how much they'd like more theaters.

I thought about possible solutions, and then I remembered a bit of wisdom from another neighborhood theater fighting to stay alive: the Loew's Jersey Theater in Jersey City. The heart of their struggle involves a lease between Friends of the Loew's (FOL), the volunteer group that has kept the theater up and running, and Jersey City, and whether or not the city has lived up to the terms of the lease in order to help preserve the movie palace. 

Jersey City wants to bring in national, commercial promoters like Live Nation to run the Loew's so that they can attract big concerts, but FOL wants to keep it local, where big concerts would be one facet of a larger, multimedia plan, which would include film. The difference, they say, is in making the Loew's non-profit:
...Why non-profit? Google “Live Nation” and “AEG” and look at the schedules of theatres they run. You won’t see a lot of the kinds of programming in addition to major concerts that most people agree the Loew’s should have: local arts, community-centered, family, ethnic, affordable, film. That’s because for profit theatres are run by commercial promoters who can only worry about one thing: Making the most money for owners and shareholders. They have no reason to want to do more. 
It would be presumptuous to assume that for profit management will suddenly guarantee of [sic] a lot of concerts at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre. Promoters have been known to want to take over a venue not so much to use it but to keep potential competitors out. 
Friends of the Loew’s has always planned to work with major promoters to bring in big shows, but [to] put the income earned back into other programming along with donations and grants. 
That’s what all those other non-profit managed theatres do, and that [sic] what FOL and Jersey City are supposed to be doing in partnership of the Loew’s, per the terms of our lease.
The Colonial in Phoenixville, PA, is one of several
examples of successful non-profit theaters
in Brian Real's thesis.
In 2008, a University of Maryland Film Studies graduate assistant by the name of Brian Real wrote a thesis while he was at Johns Hopkins University, getting his Master of Arts in Communication, about turning historic movie theaters into non-profits. In his paper, he points out how local, urban-based movie theaters have always relied on community support from as far back as the early days of the film exhibition industry; he provides case studies of struggling theaters reborn as non-profits; he emphasizes the role of local businesses and local government in preserving the theaters, as well as the ways the community took a direct hand in re-shaping the theaters; and he shows the results. 

While he acknowledges the value of film theaters as performing arts centers, like what FOL wants to do with the Loew's, his emphasis is on film theaters which remained (primarily) film theaters, through the non-profit path: 
...All of the movie theatres in this sample followed a non-profit structure that allowed them to remain financially stable. Non-profit status allowed them to receive grants from governments, foundations, and businesses that are not available to for-profit institutions. These theatres also offered tax-deductible memberships to their patrons. While for-profit theatres could offer membership programs with similar patron benefits, these memberships would not be tax deductible. Additionally, the groups in this sample concentrated their efforts on publicizing their membership programs and explaining why their theatres function as non-profits.
It's a must-read if you've got a half hour or so.

Here within the five boroughs, we have the Film Forum as the most successful example of a non-profit film theater, one that has been a Manhattan institution for over forty years by specializing in independent and foreign cinema, as well as the classics. While Hollywood movies will always dominate the marketplace, there will also always be a market for alternative cinema, in small towns as well as big cities, and it's a format that works well for non-profit theaters.

Reading about this has, I admit, got me wondering if I could apply it to bring back a theater like, say, the Jackson. I'd have to give it some serious thought... and I would definitely have to bring in some friends... Worth thinking about.

My dream movie theater


  1. The Drexel Theatre here in Bexley has also gone non-profit:

  2. That's great to know. I remember when it looked like the Drexel was facing hard times. I saw a lot of great movies there.

  3. This sounds a great idea. There ar two movie theaters in my city. Both of them showed 50 Shaed of Grey during months, while Birdman and The Imitation game were shown for only a week. Boyhood, Whiplash and The Theory of Everything didn't even arrive here.
    Two more theaters closed their doors. If they became non-profit, imagine what a diverse, alternative, brilliant schedule they could have had!

  4. Hmm. I wonder how many precedents there are for non-profit theaters in foreign countries.


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