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Art Theater Co-op

126 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820

2012 through 31 July 2017

In the summer of 2011, Sanford Hess, operator of the Art Theater business, told the Art Theater patrons that when his lease was done at the end of 2012 he would not renew the lease. If the community wanted to keep the Art running, a new owner would have to step forward. Hess, who added much vitality to the Art by personally introducing films, developing an email base, creating a website, and adding late night screenings of cult classics, knew that the film industry was changing and all theaters would be required to install specialized digital projectors. A new projector for the Art would cost at least $80,000.00. Hess would have to go into debt in order to install the needed equipment. It was time for him to leave the business and assume his day job in the computer industry on a full time basis. Once again in the life of this little theater, its future was in question.

Enter Ben Galewsky, Chair of the Board of Directors of another popular, local business, the Common Ground Food Co-op. Galewsky had recently helped steer a move and expansion of the food co-op and knew firsthand how well the co-op business model could work. Galewsky contacted Hess with the suggestion to explore the idea of the Art Theater becoming a cooperatively-owned business. Hess liked the idea, and the co-op effort was born.

In September of 2011 Hess and Galewsky convened an interim board to discuss the feasibility of turning the Art into a co-op. On that board, in addition to Hess and Galewsky, were Colleen Cook, who had worked as general manager of the Boardman Art Theatre, Luke Boyce of Shatterglass Studios and the newly forming CU Film Society, and other local folks with a strong interest in keeping the art-house running: avid patron Stuart Levy, attorney Garth Gersten, and retired film studies teacher Audrey Wells. After some research and discussion into the feasibility of the project, they agreed to go forward. In consultation with an out-of-state lawyer who specializes in co-ops, Laddie Lushin, Esq., an application was filed with the State of Illinois to form the Art Theater Co-op. The following sub-committees were formed: Business Plan, By-laws, Digital Projection, and Outreach.

The Interim Board faced some printing costs and legal fees. They decided to have a fundraiser and settled on using an on-line crowd-funding website called Indiegogo. In only a few weeks, the goal of $2,000.00 was raised.

The interim board drafted a mission statement that read: "Building community by preserving and promoting a space for the shared cinema experience."  The emphasis in the mission statement on community indicates a general co-op philosophy and reflects the real function of a co-op. The emphasis was not on the particular building, nor on turning a high profit.  The bottom-line financial goal was to be able to sustain the business and pay a decent wage.

One of the big decisions the interim board faced was figuring out the cost of an owner-share. The business plan sub-committee calculated a need to raise $100,000.00 in order to assume ownership of the Art and purchase the new digital projector. Sanford Hess was essential in providing vital information, based on his two years of actual results, to help write the business plan for the Co-op. The decision was hard because the higher the cost of a share, the fewer total owners the co-op would need. However, that also would mean a smaller owner base. The interim board wanted to be as inclusive as possible and stay true to the mission statement’s goal of building a community. At a meeting held at Colleen Cook’s in the fall of 2011, the group sat around an oval table, each person with a small slip of paper and pen. Each interim board member wrote down an amount they thought would be a workable idea.  Some were high and others low. A discussion commenced. The cost of an owner share for the Common Ground Food Co-op was $60.00 so the board knew that was an amount many in the community were comfortable with. The interim board settled on the amount of $65.00 per share, hoping that this amount was low enough to entice a large number of owners. If folks purchased only one share, 1500 folks would need to sign up. The plan was always to allow people to purchase multiple shares, and research revealed that nine shares were legally allowed, but no special privileges could go along with the higher number of shares.

Relying on the trusted experience of Ben Galewsky, the group decided that once 200 owners had signed up, a general election would be held to elect a board of directors and the interim board would disband. The work to sign up owners began.

On the evening of December 16, 2011, an owner drive kick-off event was held at the Art. Contributors to the Indigogo fundraiser voted on a film to be shown, and the Coen brothers’ film Oh Brother Where art Thou? was screened from a 35mm print. Admission was five dollars. Turnout was strong with over fifty people signing up as owners. Local theater historian Perry Morris proudly became owner #1.

By the first week of January 2012, the Co-op had 200 owners, and the interim board began planning the transition to the first elected board. On March 11, 2012, a meeting of the owners was held at the Art Theater. Out of the more than 500 owners who had signed up by that date, a stellar slate of eighteen candidates emerged, and nine board members were elected:  Luke Boyce, Joanna Ebizie, Ben Galewsky, Colleen Gibbons, Tim Hartin, David Thiel, David Ward, Penny Watkins-Zdrojewski, and Audrey Wells.

By July 2012 the new board reached its goal of raising $100,000. On July 7, 2012, WILL-AM broke the story when Jim Meadows interviewed Sanford Hess.  The Art Theater Co-op was a go! Over 1200 people were owners of the Art Theater Co-op and 105,000 dollars were in the bank.  Lease negotiations with building owner David Kraft were settled. The search began for a general manager and found a bright, enthusiastic young man. Austin McCann was hired in August 2012. Sanford Hess worked with McCann to make for a smooth transition. The Art Theater Co-op officially assumed ownership of the Art Theater on September 7, 2012. The first film screened was The Queen of Versailles. In October 2012 a grand opening celebration complete with music from The Yellow Jackets (Tom Turino, Kate Fritz, and Claire Johnson), catered refreshments from Strawberry Fields, and the documentary Side by Side about film to digital conversion officially launched the Art Theater Co-op.

Eraserhead was one of the last movies to be shown from 35mm film on the Art’s platter system.  The very last screening of 35mm was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which played at 10 PM on August 1.  Local filmmakers recorded (digitally) the last moments of 35mm film projection at the Art  catching the last tail of film as it flew from the projector onto the take-up platter.

In August of 2013, the Art Theater Co-op had much to celebrate. The new digital projector was installed and the crisp quality was celebrated with a screening of the 1952 joyful classic Singin’ in the Rain. In addition, Box Office magazine in August recognized the Art Theater with its Marquee Award for pioneering the movie theater co-operative model.

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