Historic Art Theater in downtown Champaign has turned into co-op

It’s 7 p.m. and suddenly the once-short line stretches out the door and around the corner of the building. Above the crowd is a lit marquee listing the productions they are about to see and along both sides of the entrance movie posters hang. The throng of people push past the popcorn counter into the mouth of the double doors until the almost 400-seat complex is filled. The lights dim until the seated viewers are virtually gone with the dark, and with the light of the screen, the murmur of the crowd goes silent. It’s a night not unlike any other at The Art Theater in downtown Champaign, but after nearly 100 years of existence, it is now running the risk of extinction.

The theater has outlived six wars, 17 presidents and a range of technological advances within the very industry it occupies. Films were characterized by black and white, silence and small screens that have now been replaced by explosive surround sound, 3D screens and color. But there is an advancement that now has the theater in trouble: digital filmmaking.

With theaters now being left with no choice but to use digital equipment, the Art Theater will need to purchase $80,000 worth of equipment. These expenses, however, are not within the theater’s financial reach due to a lower revenue source as a single-screen theater specializing in art films.

“It’s kind of scary to me that it’s in danger… the Art is really the only theater to get those kind of films,” said Perry Morris, local historian. “The theater has had trouble in the past, but it seems like they’ve tested time … But if they do go down, I don’t know if any of the multiplexes or other venues would pick (the art films) up.”

In an attempt to save the theater and buy the necessary equipment, the theater has decided that for the first time in its history, they will no longer be a private business but will instead form a co-op. The co-op would enable anyone with a $65 payment to own a share of the theater and have a voice in its direction. The goal of the theater is to raise $100,000 by October, and if they don’t, then the Art Theater will shut down.

“The greatest accomplishment this theater has ever achieved is existing,” said Sanford Hess, head of operations. “Pretty much all of the theaters surrounding us are gone now. People have a bond to it … and that’s why it’s stayed alive so long.”

The theater has been unique in its film selections compared to others within the area. Unlike most theaters, which consistently show the blockbusters of Hollywood, the Art Theater has specialized and made a tradition of showing more from the independent circuit, including submitted works during their annual film festival.

So far, the co-op has garnered a loyal following of supporters. Since the first day it began accepting money, Dec. 16, the theater has managed to raise $40,000, almost half of their goal.

But the theater will need to do even more in order to remove its now obsolete equipment.

“I think that it’s a sign of the times in that art theaters are becoming diamonds in the rough for the better or the worst,” said Andrew Harvell, shift manager at a Texas theater and freshman in Business. “I could tell the theater and all of the employees seem passionate about their work and the hope of it staying. But I don’t think enough people know about it.”

With its future depending on the co-op’s success, the theater will be approaching its 100th birthday in 2013.