From a cramped office next to a projection room, one woman is focused on changing the way Nashville sees movies — not just watching them, but viewing them — as part of the city’s creative life. At a time when the future of cinemas (and cinema itself) is much debated, the staff at The Belcourt Theatre, the city’s resident arthouse, takes the responsibility of bringing meaningful films to Nashville very seriously.
Nobody feels that burden more than Stephanie Silverman, The Belcourt’s executive director and a rising power in Nashville’s arts community. Her tiny office is accessible only by a spiral staircase located behind the theater’s concession area. The adjacent space is the projection room for the larger of the theater’s two screens, housing a reel-to-reel projector, a platter projector and a functioning toilet — a holdover from a time when someone had to monitor the projector at all times to avoid a fire hazard.
It’s not the only place where the 87-year-old theater shows its age. Nearby offices — occupied by marketing and development director Cindy Wall, operations director Melinda Morgan and programming director Toby Leonard — are housed in converted projection rooms and closets. Quarters are so close that in Silverman’s office, a shelf has been fashioned into a makeshift second desk. That’s where the intern sits.
“If we keep growing at this rate, I don’t know where we’ll put the next people,” Silverman remarked over the mild hum of music drifting up from a matinee of Wes Anderson’s indie blockbuster Moonrise Kingdom. “We’ll have to put desks out on the balconies,” she joked.
The shelf-desk reflects the Hillsboro Village theater’s growth spurt of late. But this is no overnight success story. A relic of the silent era, the city’s last functioning historic movie palace has cheated death at least once. At the dawn of the Aughts, it was dark.
The current resurgence of the little-theater-that-could can be attributed to years of hard work. Years of volunteer hours from dedicated individuals, many of them native Nashvillians seeking to preserve a piece of their childhoods. All contributed to The Belcourt’s steady turnaround, whether they donated time or resources, or manned the concessions counter on busy days.
Over the past five years, The Belcourt has dispelled any outdated perceptions of it as a community charity case tethered on life support. These days it’s not uncommon to see audiences lined up all the way around the block to Blakemore Avenue, or to see high-profile visiting stars and filmmakers drawn to Nashville expressly by the theater.
And a key reason why is the sharp, forward-thinking woman seated at her crowded desk, beside a projection booth that dates back to the days Charlie Chaplin was king.
The Belcourt Theatre opened as a silent movie house in 1925 and was initially known as the Hillsboro Theatre. In the 1930s, the venue opened its doors to The Children’s Theatre of Nashville — which became the long-running Nashville Children’s Theatre — and another venerable institution, the Grand Ole Opry, which operated there from 1934 to 1936.
In the late 1930s, the theater was known as the Nashville Community Playhouse, housing both film and live theatrical performances. Its personnel included director Delbert Mann, who would win the Oscar for 1955’s Marty, and actor Tom Ewell, who later co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.
But by 1966, as repertory arthouses spread across the country, the focus had shifted to film. The theater added a second auditorium next door to its 1925 hall and changed its name to Belcourt Cinema. During these years, it was operated by Georgia-based Carmike Cinemas and played regular commercial releases.
Those days were numbered. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, multiplex theaters — each housing 10 screens or more — were multiplying across the country. Often built near big-box retailers and malls to take advantage of large crowds and foot traffic, the multiplexes put many small cinemas out of business. Then came the rise of the megaplexes, behemoths with as many as 30 screens.
The Belcourt certainly experienced its own ebbs and flows during this period. Single-screen theaters, which had weathered the rise of television and VCRs, now found it harder to book major releases. Gambling the weekly nut on a single film became risky. Forced to seek new strategies, Carmike found unexpected success in the early ’90s booking landmark indies such as Reservoir Dogs and Go Fish onto Belcourt screens, tapping into more sophisticated audiences including nearby Vanderbilt.
But the facility itself was falling into disrepair. Chunks of plaster were known to crash down into the seats during screenings. The seats themselves were notorious for dumping patrons on the floor.
Belcourt fans rejoiced in 1996 when the late real estate entrepreneur Charles Hawkins purchased the theater on behalf of Watkins College, with the help of several investors. But the independently owned Belcourt lacked a chain’s muscle, and it couldn’t compete for bookings with Knoxville-based Regal Cinemas and its new 16-screen complex in Green Hills. Audiences dwindled to single-digit numbers for some screenings. In January of 1999, the theater closed after consistent losses.
That summer, however, a grassroots group called Belcourt YES! negotiated a lease with the owners. Its ranks included Julia Sutherland, a well-connected Nashville native, as well as philanthropic cinephiles Scott and Mimi Manzler. In 2001, they reopened the theater as a nonprofit, updating and renovating the two-screen cinema into a multi-use space for film, live theater and music.
Almost immediately, the new Belcourt faced familiar problems: skittish distributors, high overhead — and low turnout. But a major turning point came in 2003, when Tom Wills, a founding member of Belcourt YES!, purchased the theater for $1.4 million. With Wills as sympathetic landlord, the nonprofit now had breathing room to raise funds, as well as a solid reprieve from the wrecking ball.
The year 2007 proved to be a landmark for The Belcourt. It was the year the nonprofit secured a loan from SunTrust and bought out Wills. It was the year an unlikely hit — a dark Spanish fantasy called Pan’s Labyrinth, from director Guillermo del Toro — posted astronomical box-office numbers in Hillsboro Village, boosting the theater’s credibility with distributors and adding leverage.
Also that year, perhaps more importantly for its long-term health, the organization hired Stephanie Silverman as managing director.
An Omaha, Neb., native, Silverman was appointed to the managing director position roughly five-and-a-half years ago. She succeeded Steve Small, a veteran promoter with a background in professional wrestling. She credits Small with shaping the passionate but disorganized nonprofit into a professional organization.
Silverman has further refined that discipline. With a strong background in performing arts and nonprofit management, Silverman — a mother of four who is married to electric-violin virtuoso Tracy Silverman — is an adept multitasker. She bridges the gap between strategic long-term planning and day-to-day operations. She oversees such a broad range of duties that she was recently promoted to executive director.
“When The Belcourt became The Belcourt that it is today, 11 years ago, it was because of a super-passionate group of committee members who took on a lot of the operational responsibilities,” Silverman said in her office above Belcourt Avenue. “As we’ve continued to grow over the last five years, we have, as a staff, taken over in full the operations.”
For Silverman, that means a difficult balancing act, weighing a mission to show challenging, unconventional fare against the practical need to put patrons in the theater’s (thankfully) refurbished seats. The institution has tried to ensure financial stability by showing what Silverman calls “tentpoles,” films that will bring in enough revenue to allow the staff to take chances on lesser-known titles.
By “tentpole,” Silverman isn’t talking The Dark Knight Rises. She notes that one indie success such as last year’s The Tree of Life or the current Moonrise Kingdom — which sold out more than a dozen shows last month — can provide security for riskier programming. And distributors are finding there’s a benefit to choosing a small, devoted indie art house over a megaplex.
Moonrise Kingdom is a prime example. From the moment the all-star comedy’s date was locked, the Wes Anderson fanatics on The Belcourt’s staff began a steady drumbeat of promotion. The results were staggering. Of the 854 screens nationwide showing Moonrise Kingdom that opening weekend June 29, The Belcourt was the highest-grossing theater in America — trouncing the Regal Opry Mills cinema showing it across town.
“Tentpoles make us enough money and bring in enough new audiences so we can underwrite films that aren’t necessarily going to do that, but that we still feel are critical to play for Nashville,” Silverman explained. “They’re not going to pay the bills for this building. We don’t ever want to be in a position where we’re making decisions on movies solely based on the bottom line. We want content and quality first, bottom line second.”
The success of a larger indie film like Moonrise Kingdom has other benefits that extend past the film’s run, such as boosting membership numbers. “We always see an increase in first-time memberships when we have these kinds of films,” Silverman said. Yearly membership options, which range from $35 for students to $2,500 for the “mogul” level — which is packed with perks like a complimentary hall rental — provide guests with discounted film tickets, merchandise and admission to special events.
In early 2007, membership levels stood near 350. Today, the theater has 1,900 households and more than 2,500 individual members.
“That growth came in small independent releases, repertory and classic film programming — stuff that is not what you’d expect to be money-making — but we saw those audiences consistently grow,” Silverman said. “It was because of consistent growth over time, making this a very stable organization. We see double-digit growth in box office every year.”
The key, Silverman says, is to treat films “like a performing arts center would treat an incoming Broadway show or a dance company, or an individual event. We market it as its own thing, and we build audiences specifically around that film.”
Toward that goal, Silverman and her team have fostered a vital social media community — their weekly email blast reaches 40,000 recipients. That’s crucial for smaller films such as Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which have little to no marketing budget.
“Practically, [the weekly email] lets us put out essential details like showtimes and ticket info,” she explained. “But it’s been really powerful in allowing us to directly engage with people. We share trailers, reviews, interesting backstories on particular films, and field questions and suggestions.”
That kind of guerrilla marketing will only become more essential, Silverman said, as movie audiences dwindle. The annual reports from five major media companies in 2011 — Viacom, Disney, TimeWarner, NewsCorp and NBCU — show that television rakes in $22 billion, while movies bring in $2.5 billion. Since arthouse theaters operate and market to their audiences differently from multiplexes, a theater like The Belcourt actually has an advantage, because it knows how to reach its viewers.
“Niche audiences are niche for a reason,” Silverman said. “We just need to know how to find them and activate them. We don’t need to hammer them over the head.”
One way The Belcourt has cultivated that niche is through its relationship with the Sundance Film Festival, which is ground zero for the modern-day indie-film movement and arguably the most influential film festival in the U.S. While celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2005, Sundance invited representatives from The Belcourt and theaters across the country to attend the festival.
That event birthed the Art House Convergence, a yearly gathering of arthouse theaters across the country that occurs immediately before the Sundance festival each January. It also made The Belcourt a key link in a mobilized network of theaters sharing films, resources and ideas.
“The Belcourt Theatre sets the bar for clever programming, creative and important community engagement and a clear vision for making cinema a vital part of our culture all year round,” Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper said. “The spirit of the theater is reflected in the people who run it, and Stephanie embodies that. More than just attitude, her hard work and diligent energy have built it into what it is today.”
In 2009, The Belcourt was one of nine national theaters chosen to be part of Sundance’s Film Festival USA initiative, screening a festival selection during the actual conference. For film buffs, this was the only way to see a Sundance-stamp-of-approval film outside the festival, months before the general public would lay eyes upon it.
“Sundance Institute and its Sundance Film Festival created programs to celebrate the places where independent cinema — and thinking — thrive,” Cooper said. “It was never a question that The Belcourt Theatre would be invited to participate.”
A pivotal reason for the Belcourt’s national recognition is its programming director, Toby Leonard, another Nashville native and a holdover from the reopened theater’s early days. It was Leonard who had to build — and in some cases repair — relationships with skeptical distributors after the Belcourt closed in 1999.
“When we reopened, a lot of the distributors were making new partnerships with the multiplexes,” Leonard said. “It’s been a really slow process to get all of these distributors to work with us, but by virtue of that period where we struggled, that made us organizationally stronger. I think we started to get noticed more. It’s come a long way, but we can’t stop and rest on our laurels or anything.”
Leonard grew up attending movies at The Belcourt — he once threw a jujube at the screen during a showing of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a move he jokingly admits has come back to haunt him. He has worked with the theater since it reopened, first as a volunteer before taking over programming duties in 2003. He shares Silverman’s belief that successes like Moonrise Kingdom are essential for continued growth, and for allowing the theater to support smaller films that may not rake in heavy profits.
“The success of the first-run stuff pays for us to be a little funky,” Leonard said. “When we have these successes, there’s this temptation that the more bigger films we get, the more money we make. But if we find ourselves getting in this pattern where that’s all we’re showing, we’ve lost what got us to this point.
“We want to show a lot of movies, and to have programs where you’re really mixing it up,” he added. “I think that’s the core of what we do. I don’t want the big successes to allow us to coast.”
Moonrise isn’t the only recent tentpole allowing The Belcourt to bring lesser-known films into the mix. Another current Belcourt hit is Beasts of the Southern Wild. The 2012 Sundance U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner opened to multiple sellout audiences the weekend of July 27.
Beasts also has a hometown connection. For its opening weekend, native Nashvillian and co-producer Matt Parker returned to participate in a Q&A at the Belcourt with the movie’s co-star Dwight Henry, who also hails from Nashville.
“I came back to my hometown to premiere a film that I co-produced in the theater where I discovered independent film,” Parker said. “Upon returning, I was overwhelmed by what I remembered as a simple indie theater that was now an arthouse powerhouse showcasing the most current, unique, cutting-edge films as well as retro classics and adventurous midnight movies.”
While the Belcourt’s multi-use operation includes booking live music and renting the venue out for private and corporate events, the theater is somewhat limited by the size of its the 1925 theater — 332 seats — and the fact that outside promoters and audio businesses are necessary to execute a show.
“It’s a great room to hear intimate, beautiful concerts in,” Silverman said. “[Music] is something we’re deeply committed to, and we’ll always make sure we’re a good room for music, but it’s not No. 1 in the mission in the way that film programming is.”
With The Belcourt’s present secure, Silverman now has her sights on the future. Vital to that, she said, is an emphasis on community outreach, particularly education. With images now shaping so much of our thinking about everything from politics to history, she believes visual literacy is just as necessary as the ability to read.
“It’s important to not only show the best quality work you can, but to begin to cultivate audiences from the ground up, age-wise as well as community-wise,” Silverman explained. “As a mom, I know that there are screens in front of my kids all of the time, whether they’re computers or phones or in classrooms. Kids connect with content on screens, they’re curious about how it’s made. They love cameras; they love stories.
“I am deeply troubled by the disappearance of the arts in schools. It’s up to nonprofits to fill that void,” she added. “A critical piece of the nonprofit world is to be a herald with kids and families about visual literacy and film education, making sure that we’re introducing kids to great filmmaking and teaching them to be educated and thoughtful viewers.”
Fundraising events have enabled The Belcourt to grow those educational initiatives. The largest so far is the annual Oscar Night America, a red-carpet event — sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — that provides a gala viewing party for the Academy Awards every February. This year, it netted around $50,000. Coming up close behind is the nD Festival, held the last weekend in September. It celebrates independent fashion, film and music through runway shows, live bands and other events in boutiques and venues throughout the community.
With funds raised from the nD Festival, Silverman was able to hire Allison Inman, a native Middle Tennessean with a background in documentary filmmaking, as the theater’s education and engagement coordinator. To promote visual literacy and engage and educate young audiences, Inman coordinates school visits and events with nonprofits that work with young people, such as the Martha O’Bryan Center and the Oasis Center.
“In an ideal world, I would love to see buses of kids getting dropped off here to watch great movies and have conversations with the artists who make them, and with educators who are connected to the content in some way,” Silverman said. “Whether its cultural or political or environmental — whatever the big questions are that the students are studying in school — there are great films to support that content. You connect to that content in a much deeper and almost subconscious way.”
In just five years, The Belcourt is already a substantially larger organization than the outfit Stephanie Silverman joined. When she took the reins in 2007, the theater had an annual operating budget of $770,000. The current operating budget is $1.3 million. During this same timeframe, the overall contributed revenue for operations has increased by 122 percent.
Despite the recent economic downturn, the theater was able to raise nearly $200,000 from individual donors to install new seats, drapes, carpets and aisle lighting in both theaters.
“Stephanie and the team she has assembled have transformed The Belcourt from sleepy movie house to epicenter of film arts and culture in the city,” said Jen Cole, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. “The Belcourt consistently shows cutting-edge work and showcases the inter-relationship between film, music, fashion and other visual arts. She has managed to make arthouse film both edgy and accessible and built a true community around the institution.”
But perhaps the best testimony to The Belcourt’s changed fortunes comes from its loyal local audience. In 2009, Ben Swank, who co-founded Third Man Records with Jack White, moved to Nashville from London, where he regularly enjoyed films at the British Film Institute.
“When I relocated to Nashville, I really thought seeing quality film in a theater would be something I was going to miss,” said Swank. He quickly learned otherwise. “The Belcourt presented a season of British and French noir films, [and] I spent weeks seeing films like Le Doulos and Odd Man Out in a theater for the first time. With this series, I realized I was still going to be able to see some great movies in my new home. It made all the difference.”
There’s also the vital dinner-and-a-movie factor, Swank said.
“I’ll forever be in debt for them providing me a terrific date with my girlfriend, watching Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter followed by fried chicken at McDougal’s.” (That’s a chicken-and-beer joint across the street. The blocks surrounding The Belcourt are thick with restaurants and shops.)
And it never hurts to have an endorsement from — and an admirer in — one of the industry’s most heavily courted figures, Sundance’s Cooper.
“My hope is that audiences in Nashville realize how special The Belcourt Theatre is and how lucky they are to have Stephanie at the helm,” Cooper said. “I, for one, am constantly inspired by what they do and how well they do it.”