Art House Cinema & Pub unveils big expansion plans


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Matt Blakeslee, executive director of the Art House Cinema & Pub, stands in the cavernous back space into which the theater hopes to expand.

In annoucing the proposed expansion of the Art House Cinema & Pub during an event at the downtown business Monday night, Matt Blakeslee told about going to see “The Artist” back in 2011.

The black-and-white silent movie, which would go on to win seven Oscars, including Best Film, had won high praise from critics and movie-goers for many months before Carmike Cinemas, which then owned every screen in town, finally brought the movie to Billings.

Blakeslee, executive director of the nonprofit Art House Cinema, said he and his wife, Kate, went to the movie with some friends. They were all moved and challenged by the film, he said, and they couldn’t wait to talk about it, which they began to do as soon as the movie was over. Unfortunately, a passionate conversation seemed completely out of place in the gaudy Carmike lobby, which was designed to keep people on the move.

So they all agreed to meet at a coffee shop to continue talking—only to realize as soon as they all sat down that the moment had passed, that their conversation had lost its spark between the theater and the coffee shop.

It wasn’t long after that evening that Matt and Kate began talking about the place that would become the Art House Cinema & Pub, at 109 N. 30th St. The motivational idea was to build a nonprofit business that offered film, art and culture while encouraging conversation, interaction and relationship building.

And now, 20 months after it opened, Blakeslee and the other people involved in the theater have launched a fundraising drive in hopes of buying the building they are now leasing and expanding into a three-screen theater open seven days a week, with a larger pub and a kitchen serving pizzas, sandwiches and wraps.

To do that, they are hoping to raise $2.1 million, and to be close enough to that goal to break ground on the expansion in January 2019.

“We want this to be something the community really believes in,” Ryan Kabeary, Art House Cinema manager, said just before the event got underway Monday.

There were actually two events Monday, one at 5:30 and the other at 7:30 p.m., and there will be two more tonight at the same times. Both are are free and open to the public.

The Monday event started with the showing of two award-winning short films, followed by a presentation from Blakeslee and then the serving of the kind of food they hope to be offering in the future.

On Monday, that included vegetarian and meat flatbread pizzas, homemade pretzel bites with three dips, meat-cheese-and-fruit trays, popcorn s’mores and spoonfuls of frozen chocolate wine.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Explanatory brochures line a table against a back wall of the theater.

Blakeslee spoke with pride about some of the great films they’ve shown over the past 20 months—”Meru,” “Son of Saul” and “What We Do in the Shadows” among them—adding, “On top of that, we’ve seen some really beautiful connections happen. … We’re having the time of our lives.”

Since opening in March 2015, according to a brochure passed out at the event Monday, the theater has hosted numerous private parties and company events, presented live music, played Arrested Development bingo, donated to fundraisers and made use of 42 volunteers while hiring three more workers.

The problem, Blakeslee said, is that they are using only a tiny portion of the available space. The building, which also houses La Tinga Mexican Restaurant and Tandy Leather and rents out 10 offices on the second floor, has a “massive amount of space” behind the cinema and La Tinga.

That space, originally the shop for an auto dealership, was later a bowling alley, and the plan is to put the three new theaters there, two with 60-plus seats and one with 150-plus seats. The larger theater would have a platform stage for performances and live events.

Blakeslee said the back space has barrel-roof trusses that will be exposed as part of the remodel, plus three west-facing windows that will bring “beautiful, natural light” into the foyer outside the new theaters.

“There’ll be this expansive feeling to it that I’m really excited about,” he said.

The existing 60-seat theater, with a pub serving beer, wine, popcorn and other treats, would become exclusively a pub, with food service, that would be open whenever the theater is and open for drop-in traffic, not just theater-goers.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Fans of the Art House chat and snack on pizza and other finger food at the end of the fundraising event Monday night.

Blakeslee said they would also like to update the exterior of the building with an art-deco marquee that has already been designed, and make more use of glass blocks like those already adorning the building’s main entrance. He also said that project architect Dennis Deppmeier found an original window from the building, which will be used as the model for all new windows.

The expansion will allow the Art House to add children’s programming and events, host things like filmmaking camps and seminars, bring in more local and traveling music, dance, theater and art, and create more events, including film showcases, festivals and parties.

If they were to buy the building, Blakeslee said, they could continue leasing space to La Tinga and Tandy Leather and continue renting out office space. Ideally, Kabeary said, the offices would be used by “artists and creative thinkers” who would bring more art and culture to the downtown.

The $2.1 million estimate would cover the purchase of the building, renovating and bringing the building up to code, buying all theater equipment and furnishings and remodeling the pub.

Blakeslee said the first round of fundraising will concentrate on obtaining $500,000 in one-time gifts and monthly pledges, then using that money to leverage in-kind gifts totaling $200,000, city and state funds totaling $400,000, grants available to nonprofits totaling $300,000 and the rest, roughly $700,000, in conventional bank loans.

To get there, he said, their first short-term goal is to raise $50,000 by the end of this January, then use that money to start making arrangements with some of the other funding sources. Projections call for raising 15 percent of the total project costs by next July, 30 percent by January 2018, 50 percent by July 2018 and all funds by January 2019, when groundbreaking could begin.

Among the suggestions for donating money is leaving a tip every time you attend an event at the theater, since all tips go toward the fundraising goal. They recommend a $13 tip per visit, since that is the estimated amount you save by buying tickets and concessions at the Art House compared to a film at a chain theater.

The Art House is also offering incentives, ranging from an Art House sticker for $10 donations to naming rights on the new, larger theater for a $100,000 donation. More information is available on the Art House website, or you can stop by the theater, which is open Wednesday-Sunday.

You can also call the Art House at 534-1128 or email Blakeslee at matt@arthousebillingscom. For mail-in donations, the address is 109 N. 30th St., Billings, 59101.

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