Nonprofit Cinema Integral to Communities

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January 17, 2011; Source: Variety | While the majority of unaffiliated arthouse cinemas have gone the nonprofit route, many local theaters are taking their time in deciding, marking a watershed moment in the world of “indie exhibition,” according to Variety magazine.

At Art House Convergence, an industry gathering of arthouse theater professionals organized in cooperation with Sundance Institute, 75 percent of the attendees are likely to be nonprofits. There’s less likely to be talk of popcorn sales, says Variety, and more about the ins and outs of 501(c)(3) tax loopholes.

"I noticed there's a lot of similarities between arthouse theaters and not-for-profit performing arts organizations," conference director Russ Collins told Variety. Collins came from a performing arts management background before taking on the executive director post at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. "I thought it's kind of silly that the primary model for an arthouse cinema is a commercial model. There's a model for a community arts organization that is already quite successful."

For example, decade ago, after Nashville's Belcourt Theater closed, a group of community activists united to save the theater's iconic building and reinvented it as a community-based mission-driven nonprofit. Managing director, Stephanie Silverman, told Variety that the Belcourt enjoyed its strongest financial year ever in 2010. And being a not-for-profit also gives the theater wide latitude with programming choices.

Balcony Films' Connie White, who books for several specialty cinemas including the Coolidge Corner Theater outside Boston, says, “If you’re a nonprofit, you are kind of owned by the community.”

The idea of public ownership is what inspires many in the niche business. After all, no one is getting rich in the arthouse business. "People are speaking up and saying that a film house is an integral part of a community," says Silverman of Belcourt. "For us, it's exciting to be a part of that movement."—Aaron Lester