It’s 5 p.m. on a Friday, and Lisa Fruichantie is just beginning her shift at The Grand Cinema in Tacoma. As she opens the door marked “Employees Only,” the lobby is starting to fill up. House manager Dan Long is selling tickets, four volunteers load popcorn tubs. Katy Evans, assistant executive director, chats up members at the first-ever Happy Hour, drink in hand. Fruichantie heads up the stairs to the projection room, where a fellow projectionist is making a movie trailer.
The things all these folks have in common? Love of film and respect for each other. And that’s what has kept The Grand — celebrating its 20th birthday April 18 — thriving.
“The biggest reason (for our success) is the board and volunteers,” says Fruichantie, a projectionist at The Grand since 2005. “They’re so involved in the community themselves that they continuously bring people in.”
“The staff have stayed the same, the volunteers,” says executive director Philip Cowan. “You come in and see people you recognize.”
It’s amazing stuff. In terms of a movie theater I couldn’t think of anything better.
Dan Long, house manager at The Grand Cinema
“I’ve always worked in indie film arthouses, and to me The Grand is the perfect arthouse,” says Long, who’s worked at The Grand since 2006. “It’s never boring.”
From Cine Club to cinema
The Grand reopened on April 18, 1997. Previously a commercial movie house that had failed to make enough money, it closed temporarily in March 1997 as owner Paul Doyle handed the operations over to the Grand Tacoma Cine Club. A group of film buffs reorganized into a nonprofit, the club knew more about movies than managing a theater. But Doyle kept the debts himself and the new nonprofit cinema was sustained by loyal fans, 50 members and board members like Penelope Richards, who initially paid film companies out of her own pocket.
“We were just passionate about making sure that this type of movie was going to be shown in Tacoma,” said Megan Warfield, a Grand fan and later board president, in a 2007 article in The News Tribune. “In the early days that was the only thing that held that place together.”
Ticket sales and membership grew, but management was trickier. In its first 10 years the cinema had four directors: Paul Holt, Phil Whitt and Erik Hanberg, who shared the job with artistic director Shawn Sylvian.
By the time current director, Cowan, was hired in late 2006, The Grand had grown. Attendance had increased from 30,158 in 1997 to more than 100,000; income was hitting $900,000; there were now 10 paid employees. That includes Fruichantie, who had been working in the next-door café and through prior film experience happened to solve a projection problem when a frustrated Grand employee came in for coffee.
By 2006 the cinema had also just begun its 72-Hour Film Fest (now Short Film Party) and Tacoma Film Festival.
200Volunteers currently supporting The Grand Cinema.
Cowan is now The Grand’s longest-serving director. Under his watch, the cinema has increased its budget to $1.6 million and attendance to 132,509. There are now 7,120 members, more than quadrupled from when Cowan began (and way too many to fit into the lobby for Members’ Happy Hour). The budget runs comfortably in the black, and over the years the amenities have improved: A fourth screen in 2009, conversion to digital film in 2013, renovation and better audio in 2015, hi-fidelity audio in 2016. This January saw new assistive hearing equipment installed. There are 19 employees, and the number of volunteers is steady around the 200 mark.
The secret to this success, says Cowan, is programming.
“People who come here frequently trust the quality of our films,” he says. “That’s the thing we focus on the most.”
But it’s not just the everyday films that have bumped up attendance and membership. The Short Film Party and Tacoma Film Festival have become more and more popular, with both giving a big emphasis to locally-made films. More partner festivals have been added: the Diversity Film Festival with Tacoma Community College, the Sister City Film Festival. Regular series have pulled in audiences, from classic films on Tuesdays to the late-night Weird Elephant cult/horror series, which just went from monthly to weekly. There are free “Click Family Flicks,” Science on Screen movies, filmmaker visits and expert Q&As. In 2010, Cowan began bringing filmmakers (and their films) from Filmmaker Magazine’s annual 25 New Faces of Independent Film, now part of the Tacoma Film Festival.
Highest-grossing film ever at The Grand: “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)
In 2015, the nonprofit also began offering summer film camps for kids and partnering with Lincoln High School to create a student film club. It’s the kind of thing Cowan and his board hope to build into their vision going forward in a building that, one day, they might even own.
“We’d like to become The Grand Film Center,” Cowan says, in his gentle, hopeful voice. “The things that Hilltop Artists do, we can do with film. You can teach literacy, storytelling and communication through movies. And these days, anyone can make a movie.”
It’s the people
But ask Cowan — or Long or Fruichantie — why they’ve stayed at the Grand so long and they’ll all come back to the same thing: It’s the people.
“The staff, the volunteers, the board, the patrons,” says Cowan. Tall, thin and white-haired, you’ll often see him in the lobby talking to patrons after a film.
“It’s really rare these days to find an organization that really caters to all demographics, all ages, doing community outreach to the extent The Grand does,” says Fruichantie.
“It’s different from any other theater,” says Lu May, who’s 87 and has been volunteering at The Grand since 1998. “You get a wonderful cross section of humanity.”
Like all the other volunteers, May does a bit of everything: selling concessions, taking tickets, sweeping up popcorn after shows and talking to patrons, which is May’s favorite part of the job, along with the movies. (Each time you volunteer, you get a free ticket.)
But staff chip in, too. Fruichantie and her fellow projectionists often help out selling popcorn, even cleaning up.
“Working in commercial theaters it’s mainly (staffed by) younger, minimum-wage people,” says Long, who has spent his career in cinemas from Seattle to Minnesota, and who runs The Grand’s movie trivia nights. “(In a nonprofit) the volunteers are here by choice and there are so many neat people, aged from teens to 80s. There’s even one guy who was a B-17 pilot flying missions over Germany in World War II. It’s amazing stuff. In terms of a movie theater, I couldn’t think of anything better.”
Celebrate The Grand Cinema’s 20th
When: Reception 5:30-6:30 p.m. April 18 with cake pops and no-host bar.
Where: 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma.
What: All day you can wear a Grand Cinema T-shirt to get into a movie free; enter a prize drawing; renew membership and get two free months; snap a selfie in the photo booth or add to the memory wall.
Cost: Free (movie prices still apply).
And also: Share a memory about The Grand by sending an email to Rachel@grandcinema.com or at bit.ly/2nwlKFf.
Information: 253-593-4474, grandcinema.com.
Key moments for The Grand
1997: April 18, For-profit Grand Tacoma Cinema closes, reopens as nonprofit owned by Grand Tacoma Cine Club.
2006: First Tacoma Film Festival and 72-Hour Film Festival
2009: Added fourth screen.
2011: Partnered with Tacoma Community College for Diversity Film Fest.
2013: Digital conversion.
2015: Raised $25,000 to refurbish three theaters and audio. Began partnership with Lincoln High School film club.
2016: Raised $7,500 for hifi audio.
2017: Hosting Sister Cities Film Fest. New assistive hearing equipment. Weird Elephant series goes weekly.