Deep in the heart of many a movie fanatic lurks a tiny dream: to own a moviehouse. Not a multiplex, but an intimate neighborhood cinema, with plush curtains and sconces and popcorn popped just right, and a single screen showing lovingly chosen movies that aren’t the newest and biggest, but that an audience might be thrilled to discover.
Casey Moore and Tommy Swenson had just such a dream — and, unlike most of us, they’ve made it a reality. Their labor of love, the 50-seat Beacon, opens July 19 in a Columbia City storefront that recently housed a yoga studio. It’s an all-ages theater that will serve beer and wine as well as popcorn and snacks. Programming for its first week is free — no ticket required, just first-come-first-admitted — and will feature an eclectic mix that might be a hint of its owners’ tastes, with the classics “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “City Lights” and “To Be or Not To Be” mingling with “Speed Racer” and “Magic Mike XXL.” (After the initial week, tickets will be $12.50.)
Both 34, Moore and Swenson grew up in Seattle, going to movies in the University District back when the neighborhood was crammed with arthouse theaters as well as Scarecrow Video and Cinema Books. “That was such a formative experience for both of us,” said Swenson, speaking over the sound of hammers during a chat at the in-progress Beacon last month. “It was such a special place — being able to see a different movie every day in the same neighborhood. The feeling we had then is something that fueled us ever since.”
Moore and Swenson didn’t know each other during those movie-crazed teenage years — though they probably attended a lot of the same screenings — but they both ended up working in the film industry, and eventually met through mutual friends. Both left Seattle for a time: Moore to work in marketing for the Criterion Collection in New York; Swenson to Texas to work in programming for the Alamo Drafthouse chain.
Their foray into moviehouse-owning came a bit unexpectedly: Moore, who’d moved back to Seattle, was looking for office space for his design and marketing company, High Council, when he spotted the Rainier Avenue property for lease. It looked, with its large main room and separate entrance — perfect for tickets and concessions, with a small lounge — like it wanted to be a theater.
“I called Tommy,” said Moore (Swenson was then living in Portland), “and we were like, hmm, do you think we can do this kind of thing? We workshopped it for a while and then took the plunge.” The new business partners signed a five-year lease, and The Beacon was born.
Programming is planned as an eclectic mix, balancing serious cinephile fare with genre fun: silent films, classics, recent overlooked gems, horror, anime, retrospectives, themed series. The partners speak excitedly of a planned series called “You Only Moved the Headstones: The Unburied Violence of Suburbia,” which will feature films like “Blue Velvet,” “Poltergeist,“ “Serial Mom” and the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck movie ”No Man of Her Own.” Also in the early mix: a weeklong booking of the newly restored made-in-Seattle documentary “Streetwise”; a Ugandan action-film double feature (“Bad Black” and “Who Killed Captain Alex”) with producer/star Alan Ssali Hofmanis on hand; a new restoration of the 1961 Alain Resnais classic “Last Year at Marienbad”; a Gena Rowlands retrospective; and much more.
What they won’t be showing is first-run films — those are already available in the neighborhood, at the Ark Lodge Cinemas just up the street. Both Moore and Swenson are careful to point out that The Beacon won’t be in competition with the four-screen Ark Lodge, a business they admire and describe as a “community center.”
In business since December of 2012, the Ark Lodge is a fixture of the Columbia City neighborhood; nonetheless, it’s often struggled for viability. “We live and die every weekend,” said owner/operator David McRae. Some movies do well at his box office — he cited, recently, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — while others don’t seem to find an audience.
“It’s not from lack of community support,” McRae said, of the theater’s up-and-down fortunes. “It’s just hard to run a business in Seattle.” He recently instigated bargain Wednesday shows ($6 for all screenings), to bring in neighbors for whom a full-price ticket would be a financial burden. And he’s hoping to eventually navigate the rules of liquor licensing to be able to serve beer and wine at his theater, as The Beacon will.
“I wish them all the luck in the world,” McRae said, of Swenson and Moore’s endeavor. “I’m sure the neighborhood will love the idea.” Asked if he had any advice for the new owners, he demurred, with a laugh. “It’s live and learn! That’s the best advice I can give them.”
Swenson and Moore are aware of the challenges facing their business, but they’re confident they can make it work. “Our overhead is low — basically it’s just the two of us,” said Moore, though the owners plan to hire a few part-time employees to sell tickets and serve beer. Moore is still running High Council — “that’s what’s allowing us to do this” — but plans to be a regular presence at the theater; he’ll focus more on marketing, with Swenson at The Beacon full-time, focusing on programming.
They’re particularly intrigued by the idea of curating film series, allowing them to dive deep into a genre or a theme. “One movie by itself is interesting,” Moore said. “But two movies in dialogue with each other suddenly starts being productive. Twenty movies in dialogue with each other is a whole universe.”
In a city that has lost a number of neighborhood moviehouses in recent years (the Neptune, the Harvard Exit, Guild 45th, Seven Gables …), they’re hoping to bring something welcome and new. “There’s been this trend of theaters closing in Seattle over the last few years, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Swenson. “The model is changing, of what’s possible and of what scale we’re operating on.”
Standing in the not-yet-finished theater last month, which didn’t smell of popcorn but of sawdust and possibility, the new owners’ excitement and optimism was palpable. What are movies, after all, but somebody’s crazy dream? The Beacon, a 50-seat house built on dreams, is one of those impractical-sounding ideas that just might work; sometimes, if you build it, they will come.
The Beacon opens Friday, July 19; 4405 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle; all ages; 206-420-SEAT, thebeacon.film