The Drexel Theatre is part of a movement breathing new life into art house cinemas.
Despite a few scary plot twists and turns over the last 20 years, many art house cinemas—including the Drexel Theatre in Bexley—are ready to embrace a Hollywood-style happy ending. The positive outlook comes courtesy of an unexpected hero—a nonprofit organization willing to subsidize operations.
“It's a pretty interesting moment for independent, art house theaters,” says Stephanie Silverman, a provisional board member for Art House Convergence, an organization dedicated to helping independent theaters thrive. “The independents have gotten the wind behind them.”
The turnaround began when independent cinemas started thinking like cultural institutions rather than traditional movie theaters, says Silverman, executive director of The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tennessee. Like museums, ballet companies and symphony orchestras, they began to look for revenue streams other than ticket sales and concessions, searching out donors willing to underwrite programming and support their capital improvements.
For theaters like the Drexel, that meant becoming a nonprofit organization. The transformation was occurring independently around the country as theater owners realized they could not compete against multiplexes showing blockbusters morning, noon and night, Silverman says. In 2007, the historic Strand Theatre in downtown Delaware also converted to a nonprofit. “I'm not worried about the small art house theater,” says Kevin Rouch, theater director at the Drexel. “They're in a better place today than they were 20 years ago.”
For most theaters, transitioning to a nonprofit came naturally as they already saw themselves as mission-oriented institutions, Rouch says. Art house theaters have long focused on showing a mix of independent, foreign and culturally-relevant films.
Nonprofit status allowed the Drexel to concentrate on curating high-quality movies and developing programming designed to enhance the cultural scene without worrying about paying the bills, he says. “We're focused on bringing in things you can't see other places and serving as a resource for the community.”
Friends of the Drexel nonprofit emerged in 2009 when local residents learned that the Great Recession was taking a toll on the historic, art deco theater. The group worked with longtime owner Jeff Frank to help secure the future of the beloved institution. “To lose it would have been so dreadful for everyone in the city,” says Judy Fisher, chair of the Friends board.
Two years later, the group purchased the assets of the theater and announced plans to run it as a nonprofit. Friends also negotiated a deal with the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts to manage the triplex. CAPA, which operates several of the city's performing arts centers, provides the Drexel with accounting, marketing and development services. “Our mission is to advance the arts community and certainly artistic film is a piece of that,” says CAPA CEO Chad Whittington.
One of first priorities of Friends was raising funds to upgrade the 81-year-old theater.To date, the group has spent $2.5 million on building improvements, including a new roof, a restored marquee and renovated restrooms and screening rooms. The theater also converted to digital projection and sound, a necessity in order to remain relevant in the film industry, Rouch says.
With the renovations behind them, Rouch, Fisher and the board are eager to focus on finding films and organizing events that will fulfill its mission of creating a vibrant community through unique arts content. Educational opportunities will be a key component, says Fisher, who last year helped organize a screening and discussion of I Am Evidence, a documentary about the staggering number of rape kits that have gone untested.
The theater also plans on adding a Japanese mini-festival, more family programming and finding new opportunities to screen classic films, Rouch says. The theater—which hosts a Capital University film class, provides space for fundraisers and regularly screens films for local schools—wants to find ways to use its unique venue to serve community groups, he says.
“Our asset is our screens,” hesays. “The more we can use them,the better.”
Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.