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Cinema Ohio

The co-founder of the Drexel theatre chain in Columbus talks about starting the business, the movie industry, and his love of art-house film.

Running your own independent theater — like starting an indie bookstore or a bed-and-breakfast — is one of those perpetual fantasies that grip us in those moments of high business frustration. Jeff Frank, co-founder of Drexel Theatres Group, can tell you, though, that it’s not all cineastes and Chabrol. Frank, along with his wife Kathy, have been running the Drexel East in Columbus, Ohio since they bought it in 1981. As he tells Fast Company, it was a neighborhood movie theater from the Art Deco era. Today, it’s a three-screen cinema that shows independent films from around the world. Through a combination of passion and promotion, Jeff has managed to keep the Drexel East going strong — and has added three other theaters to his group. A couple of months ago I interviewed Richard Florida, author of “The Creative Class”, in this space. Frank targets the creative class in Columbus, Ohio. How many other small cities have an underserved market with a ravenous appetite for more than Hollywood’s mindless mill?

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How did you get started in art cinema, in Columbus of all places?

After I received my film degree in 1975 I moved back to my hometown, Columbus, where there were few job opportunities in film production. I got PT jobs as a crew member at ad agencies doing commercials. When a FT opportunity came up it was taking over the fledgling film series at our local Art Museum from the founder. She gave me a list of film distributors, and I dove into a totally new and unfamiliar area of the film business.

Three years later I became the Marketing Director of the 3,000 seat gorgeous downtown Ohio Theatre. Here I learned the rigorous discipline of being responsible to place butts in all those seats.

In 1981 a local neighborhood movie theatre building (vintage 1937 streamlined deco) and business went up for sale. With the encouragement of my wife and my dad I bought the business. I had done some research on new independent cinemas in several other cities in the U.S. (this was before videos and videos stores), and decided that Columbus could support an Art and Repertory Cinema.

What combination of love and money do you do this for?

No one owns and operates independent Art Theatres for the money because it’s a tough business to make money at. The Drexel Theatres Group has supported my family and staff for 25 years. I do it because of the love of bringing an art form that I love to our community. Over the years we have introduced thinking people in Columbus to the best cinema from around the world. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Does the audience for independent and foreign films live up to the cliché? I mean, does anyone in your audience support the war and have a poster of Scalia in their den?

Despite the clichés, the Art Film Audience includes a broad spectrum of ideas and political points of view. Film Art has wide appeal. Films like Cinema Paradiso or A Beautiful Life are enjoyed by everyone. Not too many conservatives came to Fahrenheit 911, however.

Do you program for your own interests and fervently hope that others will be similarly inclined?

If I programmed to push my own personal agenda, I would have been out of business after one year. We continue to be students of the world, learning about new things through cinema all the time. Whoever expected or entirely understood the appeal of What the Bleep? March of the Penguins came as a complete surprise. I was amazed at the popularity of a film about a Spelling Bee. The Drexel showed Microcosmos for 53 straight weeks. Sometimes we fall in love with a terrific film and hope it takes off, but that doesn’t always happen, no matter how much work we put into it. On the other hand, we have occasionally rediscovered a movie that missed in the commercial theatres. That happened with One from the Heart.

Have you ever done a focus group?

We did a focus group to discover what kinds of films and amenities would appeal to audiences for our brand new downtown Arena Grand theatre. We haven’t been able to do enough of this kind of research, however. Mostly due to very small staffs being very overworked.

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The mega-plexes are having their obvious problems these days, what with declining audiences, a blockbuster deficit, and new technologies.

At the same time, art houses are facing competition as indie products are gaining wider distribution — in Blockbuster, no less!

Is there anything that provokes wild or even moderate optimistism about your industry?

What keeps me going is that certain films cannot be contained by the space in front of a TV set. They require a crowd and a huge screen; they are social events. They are even more exciting if the audience is appreciative and respectful of film viewing, and choose to see movies brought to them by a sensitive, intelligent local company rather than served up in a faceless commodity theatre in the suburbs.

Have you learned anything at all from the marketing of Hollywood films?

Hollywood films also benefit from being turned into special events in our theatres. We play most of the Hollywood product in a gorgeous three-story theatre located in downtown Columbus. Families live far away and they need to have extra reasons to bring the kids to the movies downtown. So we built an award-winning (Showest marketing award) Chocolate Room for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and created a Cars Cruiserama for the current hit animated Pixar film. Both events involved dedicated local companies who donated their talents and products to help us promote a great movie to families.

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I also learned that Hollywood is addicted to sequels and needs to be much more creative in selecting film projects.

Is indie popcorn different than big studio popcorn?

Definitely yes at Drexel Theatres. You can enjoy it with a specialty martini or a Guinness!

Is there a local, informal league of vaguely counter-cultural businesses — the indie bookstore and coffee house, the local art galleries and boutiques — who try and create a dynamic business ecosystem?

Columbus needs to work harder on this. We’re behind most cities in creating an organized network of independents serving a special audience with products and services. Most independent businesses here are far too busy just trying to survive in a big box commercial mentality market. We don’t spend enough time working on the big picture.

What are your growth and expansion plans?

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We’re not very interested in getting much bigger. Instead, we’re looking for ways to improve our quality. We have a plan to energize everything we do and give our patrons an even better experience when they visit our theatres.

Are you encouraged by the quality of indie films today versus five years ago?

Five to ten years ago with fewer independent distributors (truly independent) and Art Theatres, and with fewer movie screens per capita, the cream really rose to the top. Fewer films, the best ones, made it into distribution, and those that did were recognized by a large audience. Now with many more films breaking out and many more screens on which to view them, there appears to be a deterioration of the quality of independent films over all. The truth is that the spectacular ones are still being made, but they share the audience with films that are not as good. What would have been an indie film then probably is a limited release commercial/art film now.

What’s the most surprising success you’ve had?

The biggest surprise to me and my wife is that we’ve actually owned and operated our own business for 25 years. While particular films come and go, we have been given the gift of making Columbus audiences happy for a quarter of a century.

Maybe you know the answer to this; I’ve been asking everybody: why did the Arab guy kill himself at the end of “Cache”?

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I’ve been asking the same question of everyone I talk to.

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About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and Match.com, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies

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