It’s a birthday worth celebrating. From just 50 interested supporters, a thousand-odd dollars in the bank and a big debt, The Grand Cinema in downtown Tacoma has grown to be a successful four-screen independent movie house with 3,500 members and more than $1 million in revenue.
This month, The Grand shares its celebration with the folks who made it happen – the people of Tacoma – with 15 days of movie deals and a party to cap it off.
“I think they’re doing extremely well, with a good management system,” said Paul Jacobson, a longtime board member of the cinema, now board member emeritus. “They’re doing all the things the board wanted to do from the beginning: special festivals, reaching out to the community. They go above and beyond what the commercial cinemas do.”
Back in April 1997, however, things looked a little different.
Paul Doyle, a veteran cinema businessman, had been operating the cinema as a commercial venture for two years. He had run up a $250,000 debt and owed $20,000 to four major film distributors, including Miramax, which had cut the cinema off from movie supply until the debt was paid.
A meeting of 50 concerned film supporters led to the creation of nonprofit group The Grand Tacoma Cine Club, which was given ownership of the cinema. Doyle absorbed the debt, and the theater began anew.
Apart from a hired manager and projectionist, volunteers provided all the labor.
“It was quite difficult,” said Jacobson, who joined with his wife in the fall of 1997. “If we grossed $200 on a weekday night, we thought we’d really done something. With the film supply cut off ... the films were not particularly attractive to the audience. We were hanging on by our eyeballs.”
There also were personnel problems and stretches when Jacobson and his wife were “down there every day,” he said.
Yet the volunteers and board had faith The Grand would succeed, and it has. With a yearly revenue of $1.3 million, more than 3,500 members, an expansion last year to four screens and the introduction six years ago of the Tacoma Film Festival and the 72-Hour Film Festival, The Grand seems to be only getting stronger.
One reason is general manager Philip Cowan, who took over five years ago and has introduced new programming such as one-off Tuesday screenings, collaborations with groups such as the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Diversity Film Festival.
“When I started, there were fewer than 1,000 members,” Cowan said, adding that the cinema’s budget now finishes every year in the black. But the big reason for The Grand’s success is its more than 250 volunteers, who run the concessions, take tickets and raise funds, Cowan said.
“That’s what keeps it going,” he said.
As part of the birthday celebrations, which include movie and concession deals as well as a free party on April 18, Cowan is calling for people to share memories of the cinema in photos or words to mount on a memory board in the lobby. In particular, he said, the theater nonprofit would like photos of the building in the early days because it doesn’t have any.
After this milestone anniversary, however, The Grand faces a few new challenges. A proposed city of Tacoma tax on entertainment tickets would see prices rise by 10 percent, something that could affect patronage. The cinema also is one year away from dealing with an industry-wide shift from 35-mm film to all-digital, requiring new equipment that can handle the high-quality, encrypted film all studios soon will be using.
“It’ll be our largest fundraising effort ever,” Cowan said.
In the meantime, there’s another upgrade necessary: a better assisted-hearing system. Jacobson, who himself is hard of hearing, only comes to subtitled movies these days because the current system doesn’t work for him.
On the whole, as one of The Grand’s nonprofit pioneers, Jacobson couldn’t be more pleased with the moviehouse.
“We could not have wanted anything more,” he said.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/arts