When Brian Alter opens The Grand Illusion Cinema, the little U District theater on the corner of 50th and University Way, for its Saturday screenings, the first thing to do is flip on the popcorn machine. As the kettle warms, he turns on the house lights, unlocks the projection booth, and pulls out the change drawer. Then it’s time to drop in the canola oil and start popping the popcorn, which fills the lobby with the unmistakable perfume that defines movie theaters large and small.
As I watch, he sells tickets and chats with the larger-than-expected audience—many of them regulars—on a sunny late-summer afternoon. Then he introduces the matinee screening of Side by Side, makes a pitch for an upcoming fundraiser, runs the trailers, starts the film, and heads back into the lobby to man the concessions counter. For this Labor Day weekend matinee, Alter was a staff of one. (His day job is in advertising.)
That’s not so unusual for a nonprofit organization. What is unusual is that there is no paid staff—not even Alter, currently the general director, manager, and lead programmer. Like everyone who pitches in to keep the theater running, from bookkeeper to projectionists to the programming team, he does so for free. While that makes it a challenge to sustain a seven-day-a-week theater, it’s also one of the reasons it still survives in a turbulent time for cinemas and nonprofit arts organizations alike.