After a successful first year as an independent movie theater in downtown Billings, Art House Cinema & Pub has launched a membership drive.
Selling memberships was always part of the plan for the nonprofit theater, which raised startup funding through an Indiegogo campaign and other donations, but founder Matt Blakeslee figured waiting a year was a good idea.
“Both Ryan and I were in a place of just trying to figure out how to run a theater,” he said, referring to Art House manager Ryan Kabeary.
Blakeslee said they also wanted to have the structure in place to actually treat VIP members like VIPs. They feel they have reached that point with the recent hiring of Caitlin Hart as the theater’s membership coordinator and events director.
Hart is working part-time now, but they hope to make her full-time eventually, Blakeslee said.
The membership drive kicked off at an event at the theater on April 11 and Blakeslee said they have already sold about 70 memberships, including some couple memberships. Becoming a member gives regulars a number of perks that increases with the level of giving.
The cheapest is a $20 student membership, which gives the member two free tickets annually, a monthly mailed newsletter and a $6 ticket price for all movies. Tickets are usually $7 for students and people over 55, $8 for everyone else.
There are other options as well. In addition to the “membership circle,” there is a “donor circle” with prices ranging from $250 to $2,500. The top level comes with unlimited free admission, two “basic” memberships to give away, 20 tickets to give away, free concessions, free admission to VIP donor events and more. Businesses can also chip in with varying levels of contribution.
Information booklets on the campaign are available at the theater, 109 N. 30th St., and information will be posted on the Art House Cinema website soon, possibly by the end of the week, Blakeslee said.
He said those VIP donor events are still a work in progress, but some of the ideas they’re working on include having film screenings accompanied by Q&As with the director, or bringing in local musicians to provide a score for silent films.
Hart, the new membership coordinator and events director, grew up in Billings and lived elsewhere for six years before returning to Billings with her husband, Joktan Hart, more than a year ago.
She said she used to come back for a summer here and there, “but it was always with the intention of leaving again.” But like a lot of other people, she was impressed in recent years by what she described as a “renaissance” of culture in Billings, particularly downtown.
Hart has always been involved in the theater and loves acting and storytelling, she said, which makes the Art House Cinema “just a really exciting place for me. It was great to see in Billings embracing really great storytelling.”
A little more than a year after the theater opened in mid-march 2015, Blakeslee said, results have far outpaced their expectations. By the end of December, he said, the theater was about 1,000 tickets shy of where their consultants projected they would be in five years.
That success is also pushing up plans for their eventual expansion. Blakeslee said they want to purchase the building they’re in—originally an auto dealer and then a bowling alley—and build three more theaters in a 6,500-square-foot space where the bowling lanes used to be.
The 60-seat theater now in use would become a performance space and pub and concession center for the other theaters. As it is now, the concessions—gourmet popcorn, candy, wine and craft and bottled beers—is closed once the movie starts.
Blakeslee said the membership drive is another way of raising money, but also a means for the theater “to check the temperature,” to gauge the level of community support for what the theater is doing.
Based on membership sales so far, combined with the success of the theater itself, he said, he is already talking with architect Dennis Deppmeier about the expansion. If all goes well, a capital campaign to fund that expansion could start as early as this fall.
In addition to showing movies five days a week, Art House Cinema has hosted several concerts and album-release parties, children’s birthday parties, a couple of training sessions for private businesses and four to six private gatherings a month.
Appropriately enough, for the community-minded theater, the most successful film it has screened yet was “Makoshika,” a documentary about the Bakken oil boom that was so popular its run was extended from one to two weeks. It was made by a group of young filmmakers that included three people from Billings.
“We were so excited to be able to cut them a healthy check,” Blakeslee said.
And as someone who loves films himself, Blakeslee said, one of the most gratifying things about running the Art House has been seeing proof that people still crave the theater experience.
Every time technology has thrown up some new attraction—including television, VHS, DVDs and now streaming movies—there is talk about the death of movie theaters. But theaters have endured, Blakeslee said, because no technology can replicate “the magic of the cinema.”
He hopes that’s particularly true of theaters like Art House Cinema, where he or Kabeary starts each screening with a spoken introduction, and where patrons often linger after the screenings to get involved in conversations about the films.
“There’s no technology,” Blakeslee said, looking around the theater, “that’s going to replace this.”