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Sunday, January 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Behind the Scenes
Moviehouse operators Mark and Katie Stern

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
At Mark and Katie Stern's The Big Picture, you can get a drink from the bar and watch a movie with your feet up on ottomans.
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Who they are: Mark and Katie Stern, owner/operators of The Big Picture, an independent moviehouse/event facility in Belltown.

Their secret clubhouse: Located in the basement of a rented building on First and Wall (which also houses the restaurant El Gaucho), The Big Picture is an elegant hideaway that feels just a bit like the kind of swanky, password-only club at which you might find, say, Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigar at the bar.

(In reality, though, there's no lighting up here — the entire facility is nonsmoking.)

The outer rooms are decorated in luxurious reds, yellows and animal prints, with comfy sofas, bamboo ceilings and intimate nooks; the cinema, equipped for both digital and 35mm projection, wears shades of aubergine and cranberry, with 100 extra-wide seats and ottomans for the front row. (Yes, you can watch a movie with your feet up.)

From the Windy City to the Emerald City: The Sterns, who've been married seven years, moved to Seattle from Chicago in 1998 with a dream of opening a boutique meeting and event facility, along the lines of the chic hotels created by Ian Schrager.

Mark had been working in his family's movie-theater business in Chicago; Katie was a vice president at an insurance company. Both wanted to try something different and felt that Seattle — which Mark described as a "cutting-edge city" — would be the place to do it.

After extensive renovations and redecorating (with local interior designer Vickie Elkins), The Big Picture has been hosting parties, corporate events and other private functions for five years; a year and a half ago, the cinema opened for business on evenings when the facility was not reserved, showing mostly second-run movies. Among the films that have had popular recent runs there are Oscar winners "Nowhere in Africa" and "Bowling for Columbine," the documentary "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," and Billy Ray's drama "Shattered Glass."

Movies in the family: Mark Stern is a third-generation movie-theater owner. He learned the business from his grandfather, Henry Stern, who opened Chicago's Cinema Theatre in the 1930s ("one of the first arthouses in the U.S.," says his grandson), and his father Richard Stern, who at 72 still operates the Wilmette Theatre, an independent first-run arthouse in the same city. Mark, now 44, has been managing movie theaters since 1976 and now has come full circle with his own moviehouse. "I wish my grandfather were alive to see this theater," he said. "He would not believe it."

The bubbly difference: The Sterns, recognizing that independent cinemas are a vanishing breed, take pains to make the moviegoing experience a unique one. Visitors are greeted with a smile and a Hershey's Kiss; popcorn is served in a champagne bucket, sprinkled with white cheddar cheese. And that full bar means that you can enjoy a drink in your theater seat — or order one to be delivered mid-movie. On some evenings, screenings combine with wine tastings.

Seeing the big picture: Plans are under way for a second Big Picture to open on the Eastside in the summer of 2004, with the same unique combination of event facility and cinema. (The events, say the owners, make the cinema possible, helping to keep ticket prices comparable to multiplexes and chains.)

And the Sterns hope to continue occasionally booking first-run films, after testing the waters with the Seattle premiere of the Hungarian drama "Gloomy Sunday" earlier this winter. For current events and showtimes visit www.thebigpicture.net or call 206-256-0566.

Meanwhile, they're enjoying working together in their new hometown. "The best thing I ever did was move here," says Mark Stern. "I've never had more fun in my life."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com


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