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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Keeping The Neon Movies and The Little Art Theatre Relevant In An Era Crammed With Content

Dave Barber
Jonathan McNeal manages the Neon Movies in downtown Dayton

The kind of storytelling once only found in movie theatres is everywhere now —streamable at Amazon and Netflix, available at ITunes, and on television, too. Community Voices producer Dave Barber wondered how all this content is affecting the two art house cinemas in the region:The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs and the Neon in Dayton.

An Art House cinema is an independently run theatre that shows movies you don’t see everywhere - foreign films, documentaries, smaller films - often not produced by the big studios.


On a Thursday at the Neon in downtown Dayton. Film Dayton is hosting a screening of Don Cheadle’s new Miles Davis movie Miles Ahead. The theatre, one of two screens at the Neon, has a good crowd.The latest data from Art House Convergence, which tracks the performance of similar theatres, shows a decline in overall business. But Neon manager Jonathan McNeal does not see the proliferation of good content as a bad thing.


"Smarter and better television certainly keeps people at home, but I also think it raises their expectations for what they see in general," says McNeal.  "The numbers for us here show that there is still an interest in people communally watching cinema together. Knowing that the last two years have been our best two years does say that it’s not necessarily hurting our business."


Credit Dave Barber / WYSO
Moviegoers gather in the lobby of the Neon.

While the programming decisions of chain theaters are made nationally, The Neon and Little Art Theatre are booked locally. Carefully selecting the Neon’s schedule, McNeal sees films at the Toronto Film Festival and works closely with a national buyer, Jan Klingelhofer, who sees films at the Sundance festival. Together, they track how films are trending nationally.


And the Neon’s loyal audience likes what it sees..

Neal Gittleman is conductor and artistic director of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. A self described “omnivorous” moviegoer, he streams content at home but estimates that he sees over 75% of the Neon’s schedule.


"I just love going to the movies," he says.  "I love sitting in a darkened theatre and seeing a story on a screen, eating popcorn drinking a coke. I grew up with that experience and just love it. On any given night if I was free and someone said hey want to see a movie? I would probably say yes."

Credit courtesy of the Little Art Theatre
The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs recently underwent extensive renovations.

The Little Art Theatre in Yellow Springs was established in 1929. Unlike the Neon which is owned and run by a board affiliated with Citywide Development, the Little Art is a non profit organization. Jenny Cowperthwaite began tearing tickets there as a teenager. She is now Executive Director.


Credit courtesy of the Little Art Theatre
The staff of the Little Art Theatre

"Our audiences are very very similar," says Cowperthwaite.  "So the struggle to get people to come out of their houses and to come to the theatre is the same for both of us. The films that do the best here are the ones with the most national press. The one thing we have noticed here with our own audiences is that they love period pieces and they love comedies they’re not as likely now to come out for a drama."


For both the Neon and the Little Art, a single successful run of a movie can make a major difference in their annual budget. And craft beer, quality wine and good coffee enhance the experience and the bottom line.

"It really comes down to butts in seats because the more people that come through the door the more concession sales. We do make a profit on ticket sales but we make more of a profit on concession sales," says Cowperthwaite.


Nationally renowned filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar have a deep history with both theaters.


"The Little Art Theatre is the first place I ever saw a foreign film a film with subtitles," says Reichert.  "So you got exposed to all these different cultures, all these different languages. It was fantastic. Fast forward many years and turns out whoa lo and behold I become a filmmaker. The Little Art has played a great role in many many films that Steve and I have worked on or colleagues have worked on in allowing us a beautiful place to screen work that feels like a real movie theatre."

More of Dave Barber's conversation with filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert

Both theaters have showcased the work of student filmmakers and regularly collaborate with local organizations on special events. The Little Art is now open to a range of rental options including weddings and live music. As they adapt to a world increasingly crowded with content, The Neon and Little Art Theatre stay committed to offering alternatives to what the blockbuster- driven chain cinemas do not.


Dave Barber has hosted programs on WYSO dating back to 1977. A Dayton native, Barber got involved with the station after listening to YSO and learning about all kinds of music from programmers such as Art Snyder, Larry Blood, Jon Fox and many others. He's also a graduate of WYSO's Community Voices training program.
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