By Amy L. Hatch
Sanford Hess and his wife, Elizabeth, relocated to Champaign-Urbana from Chicago in 2008, and have one son, Eli, 5. Hess is a part-time software designer and the operator of the Art Theater, which is on the verge of transforming from a traditional business to a cooperative in order to ensure that this 99-year-old movie house can survive the transition to the age of all-digital movies.
Read on to see why we think Hess is a Chambana Dad to Know!
Q: You’re the operator of the Art Theater in downtown Champaign. What does that mean, exactly and what inspired you to make this your career?
I operate the business – but someone else owns the theater and we pay rent. Still, taking over the operations at the Art Theater was a big step and involved purchasing all of the equipment that we use, from the projector and sound-system down to the popcorn popper.
I was inspired to do this by a desire to own my own business and the decision that if I was going to do something I should do what I love, and one thing that I love is going to the movies. I spent about 10 years researching theaters and writing a business plan before I settled on the Art Theater as the best possible option. At that time, we didn’t even live in Champaign!
Q: We know that you’re making some major changes at the Art, exciting ones. Can you tell us more about that?
Many of the changes that we’ve introduced had to do with the type of films we play and the way we operate. The Art is famous for being C-U’s home of fine cinema, a nice counterpoint to the megaplexes. We still play the same independent, foreign, and documentary films that we’re known for, but we also play cult Late Night movies and (on the other extreme) our “Performing Arts” series of ballet, opera, and stage theater.
Over the next few months, however, comes the biggest change of all. We’re changing the Art Theater into a cooperative. So I will no longer be the operator. Instead, we’ve created a community-owned business that will step in and take over. The biggest reason we need to do this is the digital conversion. Hollywood’s “powers that be” have decided that 2013 will be the end of 35mm film and that all movies will only be sent out digitally. The Art doesn’t have the right digital equipment, and if we don’t buy it then we can’t continue to show movies.
So the Cooperative (Co-op) is selling shares for $65 each, with the goal of raising $100,000 to buy the equipment we need and continue operations. The Co-op will run the theater as a for-profit business, one that just happens to be owned by its own customers.
Q: I was a member of our independent movie theater back east (it was a non-profit) and we loved every minute of it. Why would you encourage members of the community here to buy into the Art?
The major reason is to keep the Art in business. The cost for digital conversion is too great for any individual to afford. It simply doesn’t make business sense, so no one person is going to step in and pay for it. If we don’t come together as a community then the theater will close. That’s bad for other downtown business (like restaurants), for the overall artistic life of the C-U community, and also because the Art is the type of attraction that makes C-U such a great place to live.
It’s also a great way for everyone to have a part in the running of a business that’s as fun as a movie theater! We hope that owners will be able to work a show, serving popcorn and sodas, and being part of operations (and hopefully seeing the movie for free in exchange).
Q: What was your favorite movie when you were a kid, and why?
As far as I’m concerned, I grew up in the golden age of blockbuster films. I was 6 years old when “Star Wars” came out, and I was the perfect age for so many of the other great movies that followed over the next decade. I think my favorite was “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” because I could relate to it more than the space films and I just thought Indiana Jones was the coolest person in the world. Even as I got older and my tastes expanded, I continued to love that film and I’ll still watch it whenever I find it on TV at night! (P.S. None of the sequels ever did it for me. Only the first one.)
Q: Do you like to watch movies with your son? What flicks do you recommend parents watch with their kids? For example: I was thinking about watching Indiana Jones with my daughter (she’s 7) but I wondered if that’s too young.
Eli is now 5, so we have turned a corner in movie watching. His attention span has increased enough to sit through a whole movie (plus 20 minutes of previews), so we see see a lot of the new kid films. To me, it’s the act of going to the theater that’s as important as the film itself. Plus I love animated films, so I’m as excited as he is about them.
In terms of which films to watch, it depends a lot on the child, but I think that we tend to rush our kids into seeing movies that we loved – and they’re usually a little more violent than we remember. “Raiders” has a lot of rough scenes if you stop to think about it. Star Wars is also harsh – an entire planet is blown up to make a political point – but the violence is more cartoonish. I think Eli and I will watch Star Wars next year. And yes, I will DEFINITELY start him with episode IV!
An excellent web site for these types of decisions is Common Sense Media. They have movie reviews for parents with suggested ages and descriptions of what parts might be problematic.
Another great tool for parents are the movie ratings on film posters. These days, movies are required to list what caused the rating, too. So, the “Hunger Games” says: “PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.”
Context is an important point that gets left out of debates too much. The recent situation with the film “Bully” is a case in point. The studio did cut the language in the end, but the few words that caused the R-rating were not included for entertainment value.
Q: What makes Champaign such a great place for movies?
It’s a great question because this is definitely a movie town. A huge amount of it can be credited to UIUC alum Roger Ebert (who also grew up in Urbana) and his film festival. But it’s always been this way – there have always been an amazing number of theaters in this town. Here’s a great video with local historian Perry C. Morris.
The Art Theater is part of this – the building will be 100 years old in 2013. Assuming that the Co-op can keep it going, this will be a huge event because there are very few single screen theaters that old still operating on a daily basis.
Champaign has a vibrant film-making scene, which we highlight each year at the New Art Film Festival. This year it’s April 20. There are numerous people in this area making films because they love it and producing some excellent work. As part of the Boneyard Arts Festival, we showcase their films on the Friday “Downtown Champaign” day. Admission to the festival is free and we encourage people to come and go and see films while taking in the other events as part of Boneyard.
Q: What films do you predict are the “must-sees” for this summer?
Well, the No. 1 film I’m looking forward to is “Yellow Submarine,” which we’re showing at the Art Theater from May 18 – 24. I’m a huge Beatles fan and I love this movie. I also turned my son onto it at an early age! The film has been restored and it’s being brought back for a limited release. We’re tremendously excited about it!
In terms of other kids films, I think most of the sequels will be solid films, “Ice Age,” “Madagascar,” “Dark Night,” “Spider-Man,” “Avengers,” etc. The studios know how to stick with a proven formula. Past that list, I’m looking forward to “Brave” the most… Pixar rarely does wrong as long as they avoid sequels!