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The Art Theater

126 West Church Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820

Opened 1 January 2010.  Closed 2012.

This page is taken directly from Chapter 8 of The Art Theater: Playing Movies for 100 Years that I co-wrote with Audrey Wells and Joseph Muskin.

The principal reason Sanford Hess became operator of the Art Theater is that he wanted to run his own business while doing something he loves: going to the movies. Hess developed this yearning while living in Chicago, and he considered a couple of Chicago theaters along with the Lorraine Theater in Hoopeston, Illinois – but none of them seemed viable.  In August 2008, Hess and family moved to Champaign, and he became a patron of the Art. In the Art, Sanford Hess saw possibilities.

He contacted Greg Boardman, operator of the Art, asking for a call if Boardman ever became interested in a change.   After about a year, Hess got the call from Greg Boardman informing him that Boardman was thinking of selling Boardman’s Art Theatre in Champaign.

It was a hectic two months for Hess prior to the official change of ownership with a lot of work that needed to be done to be ready to take over.  Boardman’s last day was December 30, 2009, and he ended his tenure with Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian classic The Bicycle Thief.  The theater was dark on the 31st to allow for behind the scenes work. Hess’s first day was 1 January 2010. The movie playing was Richard Linklater’s Me And Orson Welles

The Art continued to show the same Art House and Indie movies, and Hess added Late Night movies – initially on weekends and later on Thursday nights.  His first Late Night movie was Zombieland, which was still in its second run.  He instituted a brief live introduction to the films, and some patrons joined in to deliver Two Minute Theater introductions before the Late Nights.

In updating the business name, he dropped the “re” of the more traditional spelling in favor of the modern “er” of theater, and chose to call it “The Art Theater”.  The web site was changed and updated.

He also began to sell liquor at the concession stand, the additional income being vital to the success of the business. This first necessitated working with the City of Champaign to create a class of liquor license for theaters.

Most theater staff remained on board and Hess worked to build relationships with distributors and the audience.  Over his two year span, business was good at the Art as a core audience grew and new fans were created.

Over time, Hess experimented by adding additional types of entertainment in the theatre. In 2010, the Art Theater hosted the New Art Film Festival for the first time, and it became an annual event.  The 'NAFF' was part of the larger Boneyard Arts Festival, a celebration of the arts in Champaign County.  For the NAFF, curator Jason Pankoke scheduled a mix of the best films produced by local filmmakers - and the Art Theater donated a Friday night for free showings.  With each year, the NAFF grew in attendance and notoriety.  Large crowds came out for the premieres of locally made short and feature films, which were expertly edited together by Shatterglass Studios.  The NAFF became a great example of local organizations working together to celebrate the vibrant culture of film in the area. 

Hess also grew the number of film festivals at the Art Theater.  From the Latin American Film Festival, additional festivals were added for Feminist, Greek, LGBTQA (presented by the Up Center), and Asian films.  In 2011, the Art Theater held its first Documentary Festival - a one-week series of different documentaries, something permitted by a recently added service that provided digital movie delivery. The Art continued to hold documentary festivals periodically, meeting the pent-up demand for documentaries in a way that was economically feasible for the theater. 

Starting in 2011, the same digital service allowed the Art to show opera and ballet performances on weekend afternoons, as well as some classic films.  In 2012, another option was added to the digital offerings: performances by the National Theatre, from London. 

2011 also saw the first wedding at the Art Theater, the first of many.  Weddings at the Art provided a unique feature: the ability to present a short film or video just before or after the ceremony.  2012 witnessed the first proposal at the Art Theater, wonderfully delivered during the two-minute introduction to that night's Late Night show, The Big Lebowski. The proposal was accepted and everyone in the (full) theater went wild... it was a special night.

Another important event in 2012 were two nights of live performances by Crispin Hellion Glover.  After giving a dramatic reading from his works on stage accompanied by his "Big Slide Show", Crispin showed one of his feature films each night and stayed for an in-depth Q&A session after the films.  Audience members traveled hundreds of miles to see Crispin, and he made himself available after the show to sign autographs and talk to everyone.  Other special one-time events were live concerts at the Art, featuring well-known local bands such as Elsinore, the Grandkids, and the Duke of Uke and his Novelty Orchestra.

All of this additional content augmented the weekly shows of feature films and Late Nights.  During Hess' tenure, the five most popular feature films were: Moonrise Kingdom, The Artist, Tree of Life, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Deserving a special mention are the Millennium films (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), which provided a huge boost to the theater in 2010, when it was badly needed.  And the five most popular Late Night films were The Big Lebowski, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Secret of Kells, Drive, and Cabin in the Woods.  Here, a special mention is needed for The Room, which proved to be a huge smash, and an audience favorite, each of the many times it was shown.

After two years, the Art was not losing money, but it was not making much either. Then, in his third year, the movie industry announced that a long expected day had finally arrived: new films would soon be distributed digitally rather than as 35mm prints, the standard since the beginning of the industry. This meant that all theaters would need to buy new digital projection equipment called DCP, Digital Cinema Package. Conference room style digital projectors have neither the quality nor the capability of handling the new format.  Specialized, and expensive, equipment would be required. This burden jeopardized the existence of many theaters nationwide, including the Art.

Sanford Hess posted articles on Facebook about the change to digital, raising awareness with the audience.  One of these caught the eye of Ben Galewsky, President of the Common Ground Food Cooperative in Urbana, Illinois, who wondered if the co-op form would work for a theater.  Ben and Sanford met and discussed what a co-op might look like.  Sanford held a “State Of The Art” meeting for patrons. He presented financial information about the business, and announced that the price of the new digital equipment was too high for him to stay in operation.  He publicly presented the co-op proposal for the first time at this meeting.  The idea was well received and a Co-op Interim board was formed to develop a plan for the Co-op, incorporate, and begin selling shares.

With Sanford Hess as operator, the Art Theater blossomed, and as the history reveals, Hess attentively tends to the Art Theater Co-op helping to keep it strong.

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