How an Oscar-winning filmmaker helped a small-town art theater in Ohio land a big grant

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio — When the Little Art Theatre set out to land a $100,000 grant to fund a stylish new marquee, with a nod to its century-long history, the cozy Ohio arthouse theater had some talented help.

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Steve Bognar is a resident of Yellow Springs, the bohemian college town between Columbus and Cincinnati where the theater is a downtown fixture. Besides being one of Little Art’s biggest fans, Bognar is an advocate for small independent theaters everywhere as they struggle to survive in an industry now dominated by home streaming.

The eight-minute video Bognar directed and filmed for the theater’s grant application set out to illustrate just what its loss could mean to people, communities — even society as a whole.

“The fact that this movie theater is smack in the middle of town, it’s like the heart of our little town,” he said in a recent interview.

Bognar, who with the late Julia Reichert won an Oscar in 2020 for the feature documentary “American Factory,” began the video with some 100 different classic film titles flashing past on the Little Art Theatre’s current marquee. He then folded in interviews with local residents, who reminisced about their favorite movies and moviegoing experiences.

It wasn’t lost on the documentarian that such communal experiences are becoming increasingly rare, as rising home and charter school enrollments fragment school populations, in-person church attendance falls and everything from shopping to dining to dating moves more and more online.

“If there was one overall theme that emerged, or a kind of guiding idea that emerged, it was that a cinema, a small-town movie theater, is like a community hub,” Bognar said. “It’s where we come together to experience collectively, like a work of art or a community event or a local filmmaker showing their work.”

Among other events Little Art has hosted over its 95-year history are the Dayton Jewish Film Festival, the 365 project for Juneteenth and a Q&A with survivors from Hiroshima.

Bognar’s video did its job. Little Art won the grant, the first Theater of Dreams award from the streaming media company Plex. The company is using its grant program to celebrate other independent entertainment entities, as a poll it conducted last summer with OnePoll found two-thirds of respondents believed independent movie theater closures would be a huge loss to society.

“That collective experience of sitting in the dark and just kind of feeling, going through some story and feeling it together is beautiful,” Bognar said. “We don’t do that enough now. We are so often isolated these days. We stare at our screens individually. We watch movies individually. It’s sad.”

He believes that people share energy when they’re watching the same movie together, adding a sensory dimension to the experience.

“We feel more attuned because we’re surrounded by other human beings going through the same story,” he said. “And that’s what a theater can do.”

The theater plans to use the grant to replace Little Art’s boxy modern marquee with the snappier art deco design that hung over its ticket booth in an earlier era. The theater opened in 1929.

“We found an old photo of our marquee from the 1940s, early ’50s, and that was when it all came together,” said Katherine Eckstrand, the theater’s development and community impact director. “And we said, that’s it — it’s the marquee. We want to go back to our past to bring us into our future. So that’s where it started.”

Bognar, 60, said it’s the very theater where he was inspired as a youngster to become a filmmaker.

“Some of my deepest, fondest story experiences in my whole life have happened right here in this theater, where I’ve been swept away by a great work of cinema,” he said. “And that’s what I aspire to create for audiences, you know. It’s incredibly hard to do to get to that level, but I love swimming toward that shore.”

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