Coming soon: The New Roxie

What happens when an artsy film guy who has gone way into debt hooks up with a school that doesn't know how to run a nonprofit theater? We hope it has a happy ending.

Bess and her angel donor offered Banning the chance to clear his debts and start over, but applying for nonprofit status would be a challenge, as would keeping the business from falling back into debt in the future. After 11 years without a day off -- including weekends -- and thousands of hours spent on mundane tasks like ordering candy for the concession stand, Banning needed someone who could manage the business. Among about eight interested groups, he believed New College of California held the most promise. For Banning, the school situated just down the street was an ideal match: It had an unorthodox, left-leaning curriculum; a nonprofit financial infrastructure that could immediately absorb his theater; and a board willing to cover the Roxie's future losses while leaving him in charge of programming. New College President Martin Hamilton and Program Coordinator Mary Ellen Churchill expected the theater to help their planned expansion of the media studies program, boosting the school's name recognition and adding a venue three times the size of New College's largest auditorium. After months of negotiations, the New College board of trustees approved the plan and announced the agreement just before the holidays. Once the final papers go through, Banning and Bess will officially be employees of New College, and instead of relying on Roxie Releasing revenues (or the lack thereof), the theater will be financially supported by the school.

New College and the Roxie have much in common -- unfortunately, a little too much. From the moment Jack Leary, a Jesuit priest and philosophy professor, founded it in his living room in 1971, New College was a utopian experiment. Teachers didn't lecture; they mentored. Students studied all aspects of the humanities, without, as the institution's Web site says, "the rigid disciplinary separations imposed by other schools." Yet those alternative principles extended to the school's finances and, until recently, laid-back corporate nonhierarchy. Because of serious concerns about New College's financial sufficiency, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) placed a warning on the school three years ago, threatening its accreditation.

Recent changes may lead WASC to lift the warning, but New College is hardly the ideal owner of a nonprofit theater with a long history of financial troubles. Until a few years ago, the administration ignored fundraising; donations make up less than 5 percent of the school's annual revenue.

The Roxie's seats are from the Surf Theatre, which closed in 
1985 after almost 60 years in business.
James Sanders
The Roxie's seats are from the Surf Theatre, which closed in 1985 after almost 60 years in business.

"New College is not that great a fundraising organization," Hamilton admits. "It's not our natural instinct. That's my job -- trying to get better at it. I'm sort of a country bumpkin when it comes to it."

Bess, who will hold primary responsibility for fundraising, has completed nonprofit training programs and is now working with a fundraising consultant. With ever-dwindling amounts of funding for the arts, the bar for winning grants will be high.

"It is so difficult to raise money in this climate, even for significant institutions with long track records," says Gail Silva, a film industry consultant who recently stepped down as president of the Film Arts Foundation.

If Bess and New College raise large donations against the odds, it's an open question how, with Banning still choosing the films playing at the Roxie, they will prevent even greater debt from accumulating. Bess hopes that increased funding for publicity materials will help fill the seats. She's also working to turn screenings into "community events" that will attract minority community members, and to invite local directors or activists to discuss issues around the films.

Banning, Bess, and Hamilton all compare the new Roxie to Film Forum, the massively successful nonprofit cinema in New York City. Yet Film Forum has three screens and the kind of like-new facilities that would cost the Roxie hundreds of thousands in additional donations -- far more than Bess can afford to spend remodeling the theater for its April 7 grand reopening. The Roxie might end up more like the Brattle Theater in Boston. That beloved single-screen cinema went nonprofit in 2001 and is now halfway through a do-or-die campaign to raise $400,000 this winter, in serious danger of being shut down.

Silva says of the Roxie: "You have a business that has had financial difficulties going into partnership with a school that has no experience in film exhibition and has a shallow history of contributed income. To me, those things don't match."

Banning sits in the Little Roxie, his long legs bent at acute angles, as if he's driving a tiny car. All of his clothing is dark: his jacket, his pants, his shirt, his socks, even his sneakers. A well-trimmed 1940s movie-star mustache grows above his mouth. He reminisces about his lifelong obsession with film, rattling off names of movies, stars, directors, and theaters long forgotten by everyone else.

He tells of the nights during the early 1950s when his family drove across a bridge to Lafayette, Ind., to see a movie, always stopping for butterscotch sundaes on the way home. Then the summer Banning turned 16, living with his beatnik older sister in Berkeley, walking up and down Telegraph Avenue visiting repertory cinemas programmed by the likes of New Yorkerfilm critic Pauline Kael. And on to 1966, the summer he took classes at the University of Maryland but managed to see every single movie released in Washington, D.C.'s theaters. Flashing forward to grad school at Madison, where Banning planned to write an English Ph.D. thesis on Nabokov but ended up taking only film classes, screening movies for students in classrooms and church basements in what he and his friends called "the 16-millimeter capital of the world." Finally, his return to the Bay Area, working as a distributor before taking over the Roxie.

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