Smile Politely

State of the Art

It’s been a year since Sanford Hess took over as operator of the Art Theater in Champaign. I spoke with him recently about the Documentary Festival that will be showing January 21–27, and about his first year in general.

The Documentary Festival

The Documentary Festival features ten different films, some of which were shortlisted for Oscar nominations. For festival film listings, show times, and more information, click here (pdf).

Hess told me that while the Art has previously hosted such festivals as the Korean Film Festival and the Latin American Film Festival during his time as operator, those festivals were put on by outside groups who rented the theater. By contrast, the Documentary Festival was organized by the Art itself: “There are actually two film festivals we organized; this is the second. The first was back in April. We did what we called then the ‘New Art Film Festival,’ which was a collection of locally made movies. And we plan to have another one on April 8, as part of the Boneyard Arts Festival.”

He explained some of the inspiration and economics behind the Documentary Festival:

The purpose of the Documentary Festival is twofold: First of all, it’s great to be able to do something like this ― to bring a bunch of documentaries in. But it was also the most viable way to do this. A lot of times, people say, ‘Can you bring in this documentary or that documentary and show it,’ but generally in the movie business you get a movie for a week. And so let’s remember ― just for context ― I’m a for-profit business. I’m not a nonprofit. I’m not a government entity. I’m a guy running a small business. So, when we’re making decisions about what films to bring in, it has to be a movie that’s going to draw a broad enough audience of people paying the ticket price to make it cost-effective.

A lot of documentaries are more niche oriented ― there’s a small group who is very interested in the documentary, but it’s not going to resonate with the larger population. So the risk of running a documentary for a whole week is that we just might not get enough income. And if we continue to do that we won’t be here in business anymore.

As of December, I joined a digital distribution service, which is the same one we’re using for our opera, our ballet, and for some other special events we have coming up, like the Akira Kurosawa double-feature at the end of January. They have all of these documentaries available to us digitally. And, yes, a few of these are out on DVD, so theoretically we could show it from DVD and things like that, but we actually get these incredibly high definition files from them that project beautifully and sound great. And from our perspective we also have the ability to ― ‘book’ is the industry term ― we can book them for only a day. And I couldn’t do that with most movies. Unless it was coming through this service, I couldn’t show a documentary for just one day. They just don’t allow that model in the industry. I would have to rent it for a week, and usually there’s a minimum price.

I asked about the criteria for selecting films for the festival. He replied, “The only criterion was that they be recent. The desire was to show films that are potentially Oscar nominated this year. There are a few that are not on the shortlist, but in talking to the service and to my film buyer the statement was kind of, ‘These weren’t on the list, but they’re fantastic and they really should be.'”

Hess’ motivation for showing a few of the films was a little different:

In one or two places there were slightly different inputs. Queen of the Sun is actually not very well known at all. But I was contacted by Common Ground Food Co-op. We wound up including it, and Common Ground is helping us out. They’re going to arrange a speaker. It’s about the honeybee population. I can’t speak on any kind of detailed level, but it has to do with how things we’ve done to genetically modify the bees through breeding ― as we do with many other plants and animals ― have led to issues that could impact the natural processes that depend on honeybees to pollinate.

The documentary kind of works on two levels. It’s kind of this, ‘Look we’ve created this huge potential environmental disaster,’ yet at the same time it’s about the philosophy of beekeeping.

The other film that is kind of similar to that is Desert of Forbidden Art. It’s one where I’d been contacted by the documentary filmmakers ― they had wanted to play it at the Art Theater ― and it sounded intriguing.

How is business?

I asked Hess how the Art is doing after his first year, financially and otherwise. He responded:

Financially we’re a small business, and ― as all small businesses do ― we’re struggling to survive. The business model of a one screen theater is tough. There’s a reason why multiplexes exist ― well there are a lot of reasons ― but one of the big reasons is that you don’t have to depend on any one movie to earn your revenue, and with the one screen theater we have to. Whatever movie we bring in for the week, we’re going to eat or not eat based on that film.

So one of the things that I’ve tried to do a little more is vary what we’re showing to bring more opportunities to the screen. So we’ve added in late night movies. This year we’ve introduced this Performing Art series on the weekends. So we’re trying to bring in more, and by doing things with this digital service we can do more. For example, we brought in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series recently and we could show all three movies. Those kinds of things are only available when you do digital. We physically can’t manage more than two films if they’re truly on 35mm film.

Going digital

I asked Hess for his take on the aesthetics of digital versus 35mm. He said:

My personal belief, and I’ve watched a lot of both, is that there is a difference: surprisingly, it’s the sound more than the visuals. A brand new 35mm print ― in the rare situations that we get a really new print from the studios ― looks great and it sounds fabulous. However, in most cases, by the time a 35mm print shows up at our theater it’s been at other theaters for weeks, so it’s been played hundreds of times. So it might have scratches; it might have flecks. It might have broken at some point. It might have been spliced. So visually, the film degrades. But the sound doesn’t really degrade. It still sounds fabulous. You get more channels of output with the type of sound that’s on the 35mm.

When we’re showing digital stuff, it looks fabulous because it’s digital. And so the hundredth play looks the same as the first play. But at the same time, they’re not usually mixed for theater speakers. They’re mixed for home speakers. So they’re not taking advantage of the full theater experience.

Hess also mentioned that while digital presents new opportunities for the theater, “The core business is the 35mm films because that’s what we get for new movies. Were we only to do special interest things like this documentary festival, or movies that have been seen in other theaters, we wouldn’t really be a viable business. People come to the Art because they want to see new movies.

What about the booze?

One change that Hess made after taking over the Art was the sale of liquor at the concession stand. He said of the situation:

From a business perspective, it was our first year and we introduced a lot of new things. The biggest thing we introduced was alcohol sales. It’s been long enough ― since March ― that most people aren’t surprised that we’re selling alcohol by now, but honestly we still have a few people every week who say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you sell alcohol.’

The nice thing now is that people build that into their plans: ‘Let’s go to the Art; let’s have a glass of wine; let’s have a beer.’

He said that overall the theater sells more beer than wine; however, sales at an individual film often depend on what type of film is playing. Late night movie crowds prefer beer, while wine sells better for the more artsy films.

Alcohol abuse hasn’t been a problem, he said, and ― on the whole ― selling liquor has been a good thing for the theater: “With very rare exceptions, people go with the mentality of let’s have a drink.”

Feedback and frustration

Several times over the past year I’ve gone to films at the Art and encountered Hess in the lobby. He’s always been happy to chat with me, or anyone else, about the film playing and to listen to suggestions.

I asked him how he uses the feedback he gets from customers. He replied that listening to customers allows him to know what people are interested in seeing, but that he can’t always deliver:

One of the great frustrations that I’ve experienced with this whole thing is not being able to act on patron suggestions. I’ll use a recent movie as an example of that: The King’s Speech ― a huge release with a national advertising campaign that gets everyone excited and asking about it. And it seems like an art house release, so you’d think it would be the type of movie that the Art would show. We started hearing about it back in the fall, when it was playing in a few film festivals. The way that Hollywood people do this ― and they’re very savvy about it ― is that they start building interest early. They hold it out, and they actually release it in early December. Starting in October, November, we expressed our interest to the studio that we wanted to show The King’s Speech, and the answer continually was, ‘Well look, we haven’t decided how we’re going to roll it out, we haven’t decided, we haven’t decided.’ And that continued through November, through December, and even into January.

And then we just got the word a week and a half ago that their strategy was to go to the multiplexes. And that’s why The King’s Speech is not playing at the Art ― it’s playing at the Savoy and the Beverly ― because it was the movie studio’s choice to do it that way. So that process of us deciding what we’re going to show ― it takes a long time. It’s not like us saying, ‘Oh let’s see what we can show next week.’


Running the Art has been the first experience Hess ― who still works a day job in the software industry ― has had operating a theater. I asked what the biggest surprises have been over the past year.

There have been tons of surprises. We’ve had a lot of things go wrong ― little things, in strange ways ― ever since I took over. It was almost humorous. Employees ― most of the employees stayed on from prior management ― they would say, ‘Yeah, that never happened before.’

But when you have to deal with things personally, you learn better than any other way.

The building itself is 97 years old, so its management ― heating and cooling, stuff like that ― has been a constant issue.

Hess also mentioned that when there have been technical problems ― particularly with the 35mm film projector ― finding help has often been difficult:

I think what surprised me in a bad way was the amount to which we’re on an island in terms of support, in some ways. Things might go wrong technically with machinery, and it’s not like there’s a local expert in these things. I might have to get on the phone and talk to people who are many states away and who try to talk me through things. Or, in one case, I had to pay a pretty good amount of money for somebody, who was going to be working in the Chicago area, to then get in his car and continue on a trip down here to help us with a problem we were having.

As far as positives, he said, “What’s been wonderful is the support of the community. People really like and appreciate the Art and seem responsive. People will come out to support a lot of things. So that’s been great.”

Reaching the larger community

Hess mentioned that when he meets local people and tells them that he runs the Art Theater, they often haven’t heard of it. He wants to overcome this and bring a wider group in to the Art: “The biggest battle over the past year has been in terms of moving our audience from this core group of people who are incredibly supportive to the secondary community outside of that: people who live in the community but don’t really go to the Art. So we’ve varied our programming, and tried to introduce new things.”

He cited the film 127 Hours as an example of a movie that brought in a more mainstream audience than usual:

The film distributor came to us and said, ‘Hey we want to show this film at the Art.’ Again, it’s all strategy ― they were trying to position that film as an art house film and trying to increase the reputation in terms of Oscars. So that was great. They brought it to us and we were showing it at the same time there was national advertising for it. Normally, either we’re showing a film way late or there’s not national advertising for it because it’s a smaller niche film.

In conclusion

Having a theater that shows independent films is important to any community. Personally, having a theater like the Art in any given city would be a good indication that it would be a community in which I would want to live. However, running an independent theater ― noble as it may be ― isn’t the best endeavor from a business perspective. I’m not as knowledgeable about film as many of the people likely reading this. I’m not involved in the local film community beyond going out to see films playing in local theaters now and then myself. However, it seems to me that Sanford Hess is doing an admirable job so far with the task he’s taken on. Each time I went to the Art last year, I was pleased with the changes happening there. Hess is certainly trying and, hopefully, succeeding.

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