A Grand redemption

A local art house finds a way to thrive—and expand.

People love the idea of small, independent businesses. Even Hollywood has caught on to that notion, with the industry's cookie-cutter darling, Meg Ryan, portraying a children's bookstore owner in the recently released You've Got Mail.

Conveniently enough, though, Ryan falls in love with a corporate monger and no longer has to worry about making ends meet. You don't need to be a financial analyst to recognize both the fantasy element of that story and the dismal sign of the times it reflects.

This brings us, through the magic of modern logic, to the Grand Illusion Cinema. In 1996, the theater, an appealing independent in the University District that had been offering rare films on the big screen for a quarter-century, was about to founder. Now it has found a way not only to survive but to turn enough of a profit to fund the opening of a second outlet. Considering the divorce these days between money and serious art, the Grand's turnaround seems miraculous—particularly when you consider that there was no corporate savior involved.

The credit goes to WigglyWorld Studio, an organization begun in 1995 with a grant from the King County Arts Commission to assist local filmmakers with editing and post-production work. When previous Grand Illusion owner Paul Doyle called it quits in '96, the people behind WigglyWorld—Jamie Hook, Deborah Girdwood, and Michael Siewerath—bought the theater and picked up the pieces.

The three felt that increasing public outreach was the key to making Grand Illusion work, and in step with that philosophy, WigglyWorld tightened relations with journalists and started holding weekly press screenings of upcoming films. They also started publishing a quarterly calendar of the Grand Illusion's programs. At the time, I was a student living in the U District and I started seeing the calendars taped up on just about everyone's kitchen wall. I myself had one filled with red circles around films I intended to see. There were lots of good-sounding films, the kind of films that you'd watch for a cinema class, if the UW had a decent cinema department: French films, Russian films, Iranian films, documentaries. There was no Singing in the Rain and no kitschy martial arts films like at other revival theaters. (Not that everything shown at the Grand Illusion is great. In fact, I've seen a couple of duds there recently, including Truffaut's 1969 Mississippi Mermaid.)

The Grand Illusion also got people to sign on for membership. For as little as $25 a year, you can become a supporting member of the theater, and receive a $2 discount to all its movies. (There are currently more than 600 members.)

All of this adds up to the Grand Illusion making, of all things, a profit. "People don't know that we're actually turning a profit while keeping our artistic integrity," says Michael Siewerath with some pride.

The profits have been considerable enough to allow the Grand Illusion to open its second theater—called aptly enough, the Little Theater—on Capitol Hill, at 19th Avenue East and Mercer Street. With just 49 seats, it will be another home for original programming. But it will be different from the Grand Illusion in that the Little Theater will have a monthly schedule rather than a quarterly, allowing it to be more flexible, and it will accommodate local film festivals, such as the Human Rights Festival. It opens this week with a three-week festival of works by Jean Renoir.

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