Theaters turn to memberships and other tactics

Though an increasing number of indie arthouses are navigating into nonprofit territory, it still takes innovation and savvy to make sure the lights stay on.

There is the added potential for contributed revenue from donors, grant underwriting and membership programs — plus earned income from tickets and concessions — but it isn’t the “magic bullet,” as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO Tim League likens it.

“It’s a lot of work and bureaucracy,” League says, admitting he once toyed with the idea of turning the Alamo into a nonprofit, then decided to put more energy into brand sponsorship. “Money is somewhat easier to get for liquor, beer, cigarettes — you know, vice. If you don’t have a problem aligning with those groups and the programming works for their brand, that’s an alternative.”

Some theaters have dramatically increased their concession profits with a liquor license, which isn’t always legally attainable. That was what Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove had hoped for when he first conceived his membership plan: “The goal would just be to keep the place full, not unlike a music venue that doesn’t plan on making money off the bands because they know they’re going to make it off the beer.”

Belove ultimately decided that the quickest area for improvement was in refining the theater’s underused memberships, which began generating stable and lucrative revenue without much marketing push. “If I could double or triple that, it would probably tip us into a different level of comfort,” he says.

Since starting their member program 14 years ago, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater now takes in over $400,000 in annual subscriber revenue, while offering well-perceived premium benefits like free screenings, popcorn and validated parking.

The Loft Cinema in Tucson, Ariz., recently launched a film fest, for which $1,000-level members get free passes. And the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in Pennsylvania boasts a member base of nearly 6,400, which doesn’t yet include the 800 or so adults who sign up annually for their film education courses.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more