Nonprofit noir An independent art house theater finds new life as a charity

By Joe Livernois

Photographs by David Royal

Brandi Lamb is deep into the movies these days, riding herd over a unique new theater nonprofit in Monterey County and managing the cafe adjacent to the Osio Theater in Monterey.

It’s an exciting time. “And there’s all the coffee and free popcorn,” she jokes. Lamb is the executive director of the Osio and she also manages Café Lumiere.

The Osio, the last of the independent movie houses in Monterey County, has been through several iterations since it first opened at the turn of the millennium, January 2000. And when its previous owner shut it down without warning in May 2015, it came as a shock to hard-core cinephiles who loved the Osio for its art-house vibe and its presentation of independent films.

Lamb and a couple of others wrested control of the place after the closure, did a Kickstarter campaign that raised about $68,000 and reopened in 2016. Through it all, the group envisioned turning the Osio into a fully functional nonprofit operation with its own 501(c)(3) and an educational mission that extends far beyond simply flicking the projector’s “on” switch.

“It’s the way the movie industry is moving,” Lamb said, especially the independents. The Osio is a member of the Art House Convergence, an organization that promotes and assists film exhibitors. About 650 theaters are part of the group, and only 10 of them are still owned by private owners expecting a return on investment.

The intent of moving from business to nonprofit mode is to ensure the doors stay open while providing better access to film outside the theater, Lamb said.

“This is really about our commitment to community,” Lamb said. “We want to ensure that the theater would be here for years to come and would never have to close again.”

The Osio is wedged into a mixed-use building off Alvarado Street in downtown Monterey, less than two blocks up from the Monterey Conference Center. Physically, it’s a relatively small operation, with five screens and 364 seats jammed into 4,725 square feet. Culturally, it’s the go-to spot in Monterey County to see the films most people haven’t heard of until they eventually get nominated for multiple Academy Awards. It’s the place to see the important foreign movies, and it recently showed all the short features and short animated films nominated for Oscars.

Gerard Mattimoe, chairman of the Osio’s new board of directors, said the Osio is the “perfect venue to build on the opportunities in the community.” He said the Osio will hire an educational director to promote and to develop young talent in underserved communities of Monterey County.

“We have a very passionate board and they are very involved in the arts and the community,” he said. “Osio can tie in with those who are part of the theater community.”

Nationally, the art-house theater has always been a specialized institution, always operating on the edge of fiscal uncertainty. But the changing media landscape and the explosion of viewer platforms essentially killed the profitability quotient.

“Video on demand and streaming services are cranking out a ton of content and there is a huge fight for consumer attention,” Lamb says. “Younger generations don’t have the same nostalgia of visiting a cinema as their parents and they attend with less frequency. For an independent theater that will never show a first-run blockbuster, getting more people through the doors is vital.”

The cineplexes have so many auditoriums that they can afford to occasionally sneak in decent independent films, to the detriment of the smaller theaters that would normally carry them. That happened recently with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Mister Rogers.

Smaller theaters were also disadvantaged when studios stopped sending film, switching to digital and forcing all exhibitors to purchase and maintain digital projectors, Lamb said. A new projector can cost up to $50,000. More than anything else, Lamb said that many theaters cited the switch to digital for transitioning to nonprofits. As a charity, “they could fundraise for their equipment.”

Lamb said she and the Osio Theater group spent 2018 jumping through the hoops required to become a proper nonprofit. They founded a board of directors, received their nonprofit status through the IRS, created a mission statement and developed a membership program for individual donors, businesses and philanthropists.

More important, the board of directors has developed an educational and special-events programs that will extend well beyond Monterey. The group is currently working with a Salinas elementary school district to provide storytelling workshops and presentations. It expects to create a “micro-budgeting filmmaking” program to middle school students, and to mentor high school students through the process of making feature-length films.

The Osio board also expects to start scheduling film screenings in venues throughout Monterey County, including South County and Big Sur.

Osio is the only theater in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties with nonprofit status. The other art house theaters in the region, including the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar in Santa Cruz, are owned by the Landmark chain. Green Valley Cinema in Watsonville is a locally owned independent theater, but it screens Hollywood films and blockbusters. From Santa Cruz to King City, films are shown on almost 100 commercial screens in 14 theaters.

As of last week, “The Lego Movie 2” was being shown at 10 of those theaters. Only the Osio and Del Mar were screening “The Favourite,” which was nominated in 10 Academy Award categories.

Lamb described the experience of resurrecting the Osio as “invigorating.”

“It’s created a new level of joy to the work experience, definitely,” she said. “I love the theater, love the mission. The Osio has always been a part of the community, but now it will be able to do it as a nonprofit that give back to the community, the arts community.”

Osio Theater will celebrate its new-found nonprofit status with a Grand Reopening event March 9. The day will include special screenings and an art show. Tickets are available online  at www.osiotheater.org or at the door.

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.

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