When I first agreed to interview Sanford Hess, I admit I was a little anxious at the prospect of meeting the successor to Greg Boardman—after all, the Art Theatre is considered one of downtown Champaign's greatest independently-owned treasures—if not the most coveted; the thought that I may be coming face-to-face with the man who would change her fate set me in defense mode. After all, the Art serves as a hub for movie gurus and is the only place in town where you can feel you're sitting amongst real film fans, people who will truly respect a viewing of a Coen Brothers movie and won't groan through a foreign film because "you have to read it." No, the Art is a respite for the cultured weary, and as it is the sole art house in all of Champaign-Urbana, its fate was a concern to many a person when it was announced its operator of six years had chosen not to renew his lease and was handing over his equipment to a mystery man no one had heard of.
But then, I actually sat down with the man who would take over her operating and I realized there really was no threat at hand, no reason to get my bur up. In actuality, the new era of the Art looks promising; while Greg Boardman, whose lease will run out on December 31st, worked hard to bring great independent movies to the community and gave us a variety of specialty film festivals, Sanford Hess's new venture for the Art hopes to take the theater's renown for the eclectic and independent one step further.
Jamie Newell: What is your current day-job, and how did you come into wanting to operate the Art?
Sanford Hess: I work in the software industry... I've always wanted to do something different, which is where the movie thing came in. It's always been my desire to have my own business; working in the corporate world for 16 years will do that for you. I love going to movies, so for about the last ten years I've been sort of formulating this idea, going "wow, that would be really cool to own a movie theater," and that sort of became crystallized for me. And then about three years ago, I kind of started looking at the Art...
JN: The News-Gazette quoted you as saying you'd like to carry on the film festivals at the Art. Can you expand on that?
SH: Yeah, absolutely. I'm coming into this with no preconceptions of what it's going to be like. I want to experiment with a lot of things... I know Greg Boardman has experimented with a lot of things like the French and Latin American film festivals, so I'd like to keep some of those things going. I also have broached the idea with Jason Pankoke about doing some film festivals with more local films, because I was really impressed and surprised about what a vibrant local filmmaker community there is here.
JN: Yeah, and it really doesn't get showcased like it should. They need a platform to really show off their stuff.
SH: Yeah, that's exactly right, and I felt that, too. To me, part of being a local business (I used to live in Chicago, but I live here now) is about getting in touch with the community... You know, it might take a couple times to really start to draw people, but hopefully people will be like, "Wow, I saw this bunch of shorts, and one longer piece [and they were great]," which is how they did it at Café Paradiso, you know, I think that's cool.
JN: Yeah, I remember Boardman did something similar with a mini short film festival. People came to it because they were curious. I think if you add intrigue to anything, people will kind of bite on that and show up.
SH: My attitude is that I'm going to experiment. I've got time, I've got the ability now to do different things to see what works and what doesn't... I think the first year will have a lot of different stuff—not all of this will happen right away, we're going to be phasing in changes—but just different things to see what happens, and if it doesn't, we'll change
JN: Do you have any experience in the movie theater business?
JN: So, you're just going into this as a fan, pretty much?
SH: Yes. Well, I'm working with professionals, I mean there's two things about that: one, there's a role in this industry we call a "film buyer," which is somebody who you work with to you know, get the films for you.
JN: Like a booker?
SH: Yeah, so I have a professional booker. So she's helping me with all those things, which Greg did himself. And Greg had been doing it both here and at the Lorraine Theatre. So he had done those things for himself for years, and had great rapport and stuff like that. So, for me, I have a very lucky situation for me that I'm stepping in and because of all the great work Greg has done all these years, when I talk to movie distributors, they're not like, "Oh, you're an 'Art House.'" They're like, "Oh, hey!" They recognize the name, they know the theater, they know that Greg would definitely do well with certain types of movies, so what's great for me is that that kind of carries forward. You know, until I screw up too much. [laughs] I'll get to coast for a little while...
And then the other thing that I'm doing because of my "no experience" is I'm keeping the employees, at least as much as I can. I'm going to be working there myself personally; but for the most part, I've got great employees who know what they're doing, and there's no reason to shake it up.
JN: Like Yvonne Greene, the current manager?
SH: Yeah, she's really great. It's sort of the ideal situation for me, stepping into a well-run operation and just sort of being able to play with the minor things.
JN: I think it'll be beneficial for the Art to have the operator actually at the theater. Greg did a great job, but he was rarely there, so he couldn't really see people's reactions to things, and so he had to do everything second-hand.
SH: Yeah, I'm hoping that because we'll be experimenting a lot, we'll be able to get more feedback from people, talk with them, you know—see what kind of films they're looking for. I don't want to change that very much, but I do want to alter that a little bit. A little more variety would be nice.
JN: What's your example of variety?
SH: Well, I mean my personal tastes. Personally, I like musical performance, so I might try to get more of that stuff...
JN: Like live music?
SH: Not live live, but recorded live performance. Part of this is also going digital, which is also something I want to do next year. You know, with my day job, I'm a technology guy, so I see digital as a huge opportunity for movie theaters, whereas a lot of people in the industry look at it like a trap. To go on a quick tangent here, from an outsider's perspective, the movie industry is looking at the way the record industry dealt with it and is going, "Okay, we don't want to do that." First, they blew it early, and then late they came in and sued everybody, so they messed it up two ways. So the film industry is going the opposite way, they're incredibly controlling about digital, and you know, that's fine, but that means it's much more difficult than you'd expect to show digital stuff.
JN: So if you went digital, would you also keep your film projector? I know that some films, especially independent, don't even come in digital prints.
SH: Yes, that's right. I mean, a lot of films, especially smaller ones; the flip side, I think, is going to be more so true in some ways, is that some films will be released digitally and not on film, especially independent films. So my goal is to put in a digital projector soon, and start having more varied content, maybe films that aren't widely released, more independent films, truly, truly independent films. Digitally, you can get a lot of stuff like concert performances, like I just mentioned; I think my sense of where things are going to go is it'll be much easier to show what people call "repertory," or classic films, digitally. So you don't have to get a print, you can just basically get the equipment for a Blu-Ray and show it. As an outsider, it seems really strange to me that mechanism isn't already in place; it's just the legal aspects that are the challenge.
JN: So when your booker deals with the movie distributors, is he or she going to be pushing the idea of "We're going to be keeping the Art as Greg Boardman had it?" Is that your outlook on it?
SH: I wouldn't say it quite that specific, because like I said, I think I want to vary it up a little bit more, but I think we'll be able to say we're "formerly known as the Boardman Art Theatre" and people will just know what that is, but she'll still be booking it as primarily art and independent film, so we'll see, it's going to be an experiment.
JN: I think the Art Theatre welcomes a different kind of crowd than the multiplexes; it tends to bring out an audience that is more respectful for the film. People go to the Art because they really want to see and enjoy the film, not because they're bored and want a babysitter for their kids.
SH: You know, we have a mission statement, which is to be the true independent theater for movie lovers, and I think the last part is key, because like you said, these are people that really want to see the movie, it's not like, "We're going to bring our five kids to the movies tonight [to baby-sit them]." We want to give really good customer service. We want to run it as well as we can; we want to give a great presentation, a great experience in the lobby, and we want to sell good food...
JN: You said to The News-Gazette that you wanted to expand what you're offering at the concession stand. What kind of things were you thinking of adding?
SH: A lot of this is things we're going to experiment with. I'm a coffee drinker, so we'll want to have probably more coffee, you know, better coffee options. I've been in touch with a company in Indianapolis that does specialty popcorn stuff, so maybe a little more popcorn options. The biggest thing is what's been going on for a year or more, which is the ability to get a liquor license from the city. I hope to have it by opening day, but these things take time. If everything goes well, we'll be getting one soon.
JN: So how do you see getting a liquor license as benefiting the business at the Art?
SH: We see it as a differentiator. If we do show the same thing as the Savoy, I would think the kind of people who want to go see [an art film] would be the kind of people who might want to have a glass of wine with it. [For example], "We can go to the multiplex and deal with the bored 16-year-old on his cell phone, or we can go to the Art and have a better experience and have a glass of wine." Hopefully, they'll make the conscious decision that even though it's a bit of a drive downtown, that hopefully they'll make that little extra effort. And to brutally honest, liquor is profitable. A one-screen movie theater is not a great business model. There's a reason that multiplexes exist, there's a reason that one-screens are generally fading, or that places like the Park District own the Virginia. In order to keep this thing afloat, we have to do something different so hopefully we make it more profitable.
JN: A lot has been said about the owner of the Art Theatre, David Kraft, for raising the rent of the building. Did he give you any break for continuing to operate the Art as a movie theater?
SH: I think Dave got a bad rap in this whole process, and Dave is a businessman. He had every right to get what he could for his space, and I feel like in the end we reached a good agreement.
JN: I think that people in this community are extra sensitive to independent stores and theaters, and don't want that to be taken away from them. They're afraid that corporate businesses they don't want, like Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, will come downtown into the new buildings, and are afraid that by raising the rent, you shut out the little man.
SH: And I think that's valid. There are two sides to this discussion: one side is it's a special kind of building, so you have to respect that. And I think Dave does, and the guys who own the Rialto, Bill and Ernie, do a great job with that, they really cherish the building, and Dave does, too. He takes great care of the theater—I mean, it's in fantastic shape for a 100-year-old building. On the flip side, it's commercial property, and just because you own something people have a fondness for, that doesn't mean you don't have the right to operate it for profit. So there's a balancing act there. Downtown has really grown a lot, and in the end, I think we ended up in a situation that worked out for everybody. I was able to step into a great situation and fulfill my goals, and Dave has a new tenant, a local one at that, which I know he likes in case he ever needs to call on me [laughs].
The Art Theatre's new website is www.thecuart.com and is up now, to be updated closer to the opening on January 1st.