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Monday, March 29, 1999
1999 Small Business profiles

Thinking Small

The film-loving owners of The Little Theater could never compete with Seattle's big multiplexes - and would never want to

by Tyrone Beason
Seattle Times staff reporter

The new 16-screen General Cinema in downtown Seattle comes with escalators and soaring log beams in the lobby. The audience in each carpeted theater enjoys stadium-style seating.

But at The Little Theater, a tiny movie house at 610 19th Ave. E. on Seattle's Capitol Hill, the viewing room is the size of a small cafe. The 49 seats are hand-me-downs. The walls are lined with sheets of burlap.

In a city where cineplexes compete for audiences and the next big blockbuster film, the operators of The Little Theater are making a living out of thinking small.

The theater is the sister of The Grand Illusion Cinema in Seattle's University District, which has been showing artistic movies and documentaries for about 30 years. Both are named after films by legendary director Jean Renoir.

Both are owned by The Northwest Film Forum, a nonprofit filmmakers collective that purchased The Grand Illusion two years ago. Jamie Hook and Debbie Girdwood co-founded the group. Even through the theater is not in business to make a profit, box-office revenues are important because they go to operate the theaters and fund the collective's projects.

By focusing on less-commercial films, the theater operators have done something that small-business lenders and advisers strongly advise: Come up with a way to set yourself apart from your competitors.

Hook, Girdwood, Little Theater partner Mike Seiwerath and other members of the collective think of themselves first as film buffs. The three owners choose the films played at the two theaters based on their own interests. Having a second theater allows the group to offer an even more eclectic mix of films.

Moviegoers aren't likely to find the next Jackie Chan or Julia Roberts flick at The Little Theater.

It opened Jan. 15 with a Renoir retrospective and ended the month of February with a 35-millimeter version of the Dr. Seuss film, "5000 Fingers of Dr. T," along with two documentaries, "A Scenic Harvest from the Kingdom in Pain" and "The Pleasures of Uninhibited Excess."

"This one 49-seat theater has done more to increase the variety of the movies here than the 3,000 seats worth of new theaters in downtown," Hook says, but his remark isn't born out of arrogance.

Although group members set out to carve a niche for themselves in Seattle's movie business, they say they don't try to compete with more mainstream cinemas.

With a minimal advertising budget and a combined operating budget of just $350,000 a year for both theaters, they cater to a faithful group of moviegoers who appreciate the artistic value of films.

"We establish a loyal audience and then push them in different directions throughout the calendar year," Girdwood said.

The group also houses its other venture, Wiggly World studios, a cooperative film lab with some 400 members, at the new site, located next door to the Kingfish Cafe restaurant.

The film forum has spent about $25,000 renovating The Little Theater space, formerly a woodworking studio. The money was donated by the Hanauer family of Seattle, well-known arts patrons.

The biggest challenge in starting The Little Theater, group members say, was the city's drawn-out building permit and inspection process, which lasted six months and resulted in thousands of dollars worth of big and small upgrades.

The viewing room is a virtual museum of Seattle-area theater history. The film projector, Dolby sound system and popcorn machine were donated by the owners of the Majestic Bay Theater in Ballard, which has been undergoing its own make-over. The seats are from the defunct Casbah Theater in downtown Seattle.

As for the rustic touches, such as the burlap wall coverings at The Little Theater and the hand-made exit sign at The Grand Illusion, it's all part of the charm of art houses.

"I like to think that there's always a place in the world for a theater like that," Hook said.

Tyrone Beason's phone message number is 206-464-2251. His e-mail address is:


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