Tucson's Film Experience

After finding financial stability, the Loft Cinema has big expansion plans

Nine-plus years ago, the Loft Cinema was falling apart.

"I mean, it was literally falling apart," said Jeff Yanc, the theater's programming director. For example, orange discoloration and warped spots in the ceiling marked areas where rain had leaked through.

That was in 2001. Now run as a nonprofit, the Loft is not only financially stable; it's expanding. In April, the Loft announced an ambitious $2.5 million capital campaign to expand the theater, which is now at times bursting at the seams.

"(The building's) just inadequate for the amount of audiences we're bringing in," said Loft executive director Peggy Johnson. "One or two films a week really pack the house, and the lobby's too small."

The Loft recently bought an adjacent parking lot, which increased the number of spaces from 182 to 267. They replaced the screens in both theaters, and installed a high-definition projector upstairs. Further ambitions include doubling or perhaps even tripling the number of screens, expanding the lobby, adding lighting for live performances, installing an elevator and getting LEED-certified. They're in the fundraising stage right now, Johnson said, so the plans are still a bit fuzzy, but so far, they've raised about $500,000 of the $2.5 million goal.

Between 2003 and 2009, annual theater attendance more than doubled from 55,000 to 115,000. The number of volunteers skyrocketed from 18 to 197, and the budget increased from $558,007 to $1.2 million. Complete numbers from 2010 aren't in yet, but the numbers as of June show continued growth.

The planned renovations are a result of an unprecedented turnaround after the theater went nonprofit eight years ago. The Loft has not only weathered the toughest economy since the Great Depression; it can afford to skip grants it once needed.

In the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the Loft got more than $10,000 from the Tucson Pima Arts Council. In fact, every year since becoming a nonprofit, the Loft had applied for and received funding from the council. But state and city budget cuts have slashed the council's budget, said TPAC executive director Roberto Bedoya, meaning there's less money to dole out. "My public funds from the city have been cut by over 65 percent in the last two years," he said.

In fiscal year 2009-2010, the Loft got almost $7,000 from TPAC. But for 2010-2011, the council tightened its application guidelines, and the Loft was financially stable enough to make do on its own, Johnson said—so the Loft didn't apply.

Today's Loft is a far cry from the theater she sought to salvage nearly a decade ago.

"It was a nightmare," Johnson said, shaking her head. "It was awful. It was really seriously the hardest thing I've done in my life."

Johnson said she got the idea to turn the Loft into a nonprofit from a patron. After some research, she visited New York City's Film Forum, one of the country's leading nonprofit movie theaters, to get ideas.

Film Forum was founded in 1970 and is now one of the country's leading nonprofit movie houses, with an annual attendance of 250,000.

"It's an unusual model, because most people who are interested in movies or want to be in the movie industry have an interest in making some money," said Film Forum general manager Chad Bolton. "This is not the model to do that."

Bolton said roughly 64 percent of the Film Forum's income comes from box-office and concessions sales, and 36 percent comes from grants and donations.

The visit to the Film Forum was inspiring to Johnson.

"That's the business model we figured would work best for what we want to do," Johnson said. "We don't want to be a theater that books films based on the max dollars that we can bring in."

At the Loft, the first few years as a nonprofit were rough, but the theater hit a turning point in January 2006 with Brokeback Mountain, which it showed for a week before it opened at any other theater in Tucson. The writers came to the Loft for two screenings which culminated in a party—and a lucrative one at that.

"We never thought there'd be numbers like that," Johnson said. "We paid all our back bills. We were in the black then, and we've been in the black ever since."

Being a nonprofit not only means finding diverse revenue sources; it means coming up with innovative marketing strategies, which have in turn have helped solidify the theater's role as an active member of the community. The Loft promotes itself aggressively through social media such as Twitter and Facebook, where it has more than 4,400 "likes."

"We work hard at it," said Yanc. "We tweet everything, and put everything on Facebook."

In November, the Loft kicked off its first Film Fest, a weeklong event that Yanc estimated drew some 2,700 people. The theater hosted directors and writers from around the country, and gave moviegoers and moviemakers a chance to mingle in what Yanc described as a "festival atmosphere."

The Loft also partners with local organizations and businesses to promote films to specific audiences.

"A couple of months ago, we (screened) a movie called Fresh, which was about local produce and local farming," Yanc said. "So the Watershed Management Group, which is a local organization here, helped promote that." The two organizations held a farmers' market in the Loft's recently expanded parking lot.

Reaching out to the community via local partnerships is a strategy that Yanc developed as a co-owner of Reader's Oasis, an independent bookstore that closed in 2005. It's a strategy that's transferred successfully to the Loft, he said, and one that adds to the theater's uniqueness.

Sarah Talbot-Haynes, a film production junior at the University of Arizona, agrees.

"It's the only source in town where you can get the real film experience," she said.

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