If the Billings City Council accepts the recommendation of one of its subcommittees, the Art House Cinema & Pub could soon be showing films in and operating the historic Babcock Theatre.
The ad hoc committee on the future of the 110-year-old downtown theater voted 6-2 Wednesday afternoon to recommend that the full council enter into negotiations with Art House Cinema and its founder and president, Matt Blakeslee, reports Last Best News.
The City Council vote could come within a couple weeks, and Blakeslee told the committee on Wednesday that he could be showing movies in the Babcock within two to four weeks of signing an agreement with the city.
The committee heard two proposals from groups hoping to take over management of the Babcock — from the Art House, which wants to show movies there seven nights a week, with occasional live performances and other events, and from a partnership between local contractor and entrepreneur Harvey Singh and Knitting Factory Presents, a national booking company.
Although the nod went to the Art House, several committee members said they hoped Blakeslee could work with Singh’s group to meet their joint goal of enlivening the downtown and keeping the Babcock fully booked.
Committee chairman Larry Brewster, who represents Ward 2 on the City Council, said any such partnership would have to be presented to the full council because with its vote on the recommendation now done, the ad hoc committee’s work is over.
Blakeslee opened the nonprofit Art House Cinema & Pub at 109 N. 30th St. almost three years ago. The 75-seat theater launched a fundraising drive near the end of 2016, and Blakeslee said Wednesday they have raised about $675,000 of their $2 million goal.
The theater and its board of directors hope to expand into a three-screen theater open seven days a week, with a larger pub and a kitchen serving pizzas, sandwiches and wraps.
Blakeslee said before the meeting Wednesday that the Babcock, if run by the Art House, would specialize in first-run films more likely to fill the 750 seats there, while the Art House would also run first-run films, but continue its focus on independently distributed movies.
The Babcock Theatre and the larger building of which it is part was redeveloped by two married couples, Don and Kim Olsen and Mike Mathew and Kay Foster, with considerable funding from the downtown tax increment fund. Their agreement with the city was to turn the theater over to the city in 2016, but that deadline was extended, and the ad hoc committee has been working for a year to find new management for the Babcock.
Brewster said the idea would be to lease the theater to the new management for $1 a year, as is done with the city-owned Alberta Bair Theater. To sweeten the pot, the City Council appropriated $1 million from general fund reserves to be spent over two years to improve the theater.
Brewster said that money would go for things like new sound and lighting equipment, a new curtain and replacement or repair of the stage floor. The city later had to spend about $130,000 for that money to buy the theater’s green-room space, leaving about $870,000 for improvements.
Blakeslee said he plans to spend about $200,000 of that as soon as possible on new projection equipment and theater-sound equipment, as well as a concession area. He said he would start showing classic films with the theater’s existing equipment and then if and when a contract is negotiated and the city money is available, he would purchase and install the new equipment, for about $200,000, probably within a matter of weeks.
The biggest question mark now, he said, is the overall condition of the theater and what other improvements it might need in the future. That will have to be determined and the information would influence the sort of contract the Art House and the city would negotiate.
Matt Blakeslee. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News
Blakeslee said he also intends to work with 11:11 Presents, which owns the Pub Station, to bring occasional live acts to the Babcock. In presenting his plans to the committee recently, Blakeslee said his projections are that if he were also running the Babcock, the Art House would make about $26,000 a year, not counting donations, while the Babcock would lose between $13,000 and $26,000 for the first few years.
He said he made that estimate while being “absolutely as conservative as possible.” One advantage for the Art House is that it already has extensive contacts with other theater groups that have taken over historic movie houses in other cities, he said, so he has a lot of knowledge he can tap into.
He will have to hire some new people to work at the Babcock, Blakeslee said, but he also has a pool of 40-some volunteers from the Art House who could do similar volunteer work at the Babcock.
Blakeslee said industry experts told him the downtown theater is far enough away from the AMC theaters on the West End to draw lots of moviegoers from the Heights and other parts of town that are relatively far from the West End.
Singh, who owns Seva Kitchen, a downtown restaurant, is also a contractor, real estate agent and the owner of Outward Media Group. His plan was to pair with the Knitting Factory Presents to bring in live acts from all over the country to the Babcock.