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The Maverick

Story: Dillon Mitchell

While most theaters are content with selling its audience a product, the Gateway Film Center (GFC) is interested in something more. They’re not satisfied with the same old theater experience of over-priced tickets and concessions, or the limited range of movies offered. In fact, President and Chief Programmer of GFC, Chris Hamel, will be quick to differentiate between GFC and larger theaters like AMC.

“It’s almost two different business models,” Hamel says. “[AMC] is a commodity business. It’s trying to sell the most tickets, the most pieces of popcorn, the most Coke that it can. It’s trying to maximize the profit margin. And that’s okay. If you go to Lennox and see a movie, I’m happy you saw a movie. Of course, I would rather you see it at Gateway, but Lennox is going to offer a lot more times that we’re just simply not going to play.”

Hamel will also be the first to tell you that GFC is about much more than just showing movies. But first, it’s important to understand the film center’s origins.

Originally opened in 2005 as the Gateway Theater, the film center began as a staple of the South Campus Gateway development. This project is part of the continued University District revitalization plan by Campus Partners, who are also leading the upcoming changes to High St. between 15th and 17th Aves. The theater was initially managed by the Drexel theater group, a Columbus-based exhibitioner, before Landmark Theaters was hired about two years into operation. However, in 2009, Campus Partners decided to move Gateway Theater in a new direction toward local management and operators. It was around this time that they reached out to Hamel to consult on retooling the theater’s purpose within the community.

“Some of the ideas that we collaborated on were this notion of being community based, mission driven cinema that was really more integrated into the fabric of the city as a whole,” Hamel says. “And really celebrating a love for the art form, a love for movies.”

Hamel, a lifelong movie fan, first began working part-time in movie theaters as a 14-year-old. It was, as he tells it, “a great way to make a little money and watch movies for free.” He did that until he graduated from college, after which he worked for Cinemark Theatres at the corporate level. Eventually, he moved back to Columbus in the early 2000s where he became the director of operations for the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA).

Between his time with CAPA and GFC, Hamel actually spent a few years running his own advertising agency with some partners. A combination of selling the company to a larger agency (which was then sold to an even larger agency) and his underlying desire to get back into film exhibition made the Gateway Theater a perfect opportunity. After Hamel initially wrote a plan for Campus Partners, they asked him to join on as president. So in December 2009, he officially took over and Gateway Theater became Gateway Film Center.

“I’ve had two careers,” Hamel explains. “One early on in my life as a movie theater operator, and a second one in the world of advertising. Both have served me well in my time as president of Gateway.”

It’s this passion for film and the need to share that passion that drives GFC. That’s why, for a big release such as Deadpool, the film center will have food and drink specials. They’ll discuss the film on their social media pages and host Geek Sneaks, early screening parties where fellow moviegoers can meet and converse on a movie they care about. GFC prides itself on creating this sense of connectivity between movie fans in the community that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.

“We’re not necessarily doing those things to sell the most tickets,” Hamel says. “We’re doing them to create experiences when you come here. Even though a movie may be playing in those other places, they’re way more special when you see them here.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of GFC is its wide array of programming options. While it will offer major blockbusters like Deadpool or the most recent Star Wars installment, there will also be a slew of other choices, ranging from independent American movies to world cinema, from classic film to TV on the big screen. Right now, GFC is in the middle of airing the entire catalogue of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio behind such films as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo, in chronological order. The series began in January and will continue into May, airing a new film every week.

“Just about everybody else sees films as a product to sell, and as a way to create opportunities to maybe sell you other products,” Hamel says. “We don’t. On a weekly basis, we’re trying to bring you the most maverick mix of films. It’s a very intentional manifestation of a sincere love for the art form.”

Programming at GFC is a collaborative effort, and the sources from which the GFC team finds their movies is varied. Film festivals and conferences are attended every year, and programming team members are regularly reading about and watching new movies so that they can stay on top of what’s coming and what’s available. Their efforts are paying off; just last year, GFC brought approximately 500 movies to Columbus that wouldn’t have otherwise come to the city.

That’s another major part of GFC’s mission—to help grow and promote Columbus as a city and as a hub of artistry. One way they embrace this is supporting other members of the community. They have partnerships with the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Columbus Museum of Art and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. GFC also directly involves local artists through the art gallery they have set up in the hallway leading to theaters. Every 90 days, a new artist is rotated in to make a unique show that involves film in some way. As Hamel puts it, “it’s just fun.”

They also understand their larger purpose in the revitalization effort being made in the area right now.

“The film center has to serve as a sort of town hall,” Hamel says. “If the Weinland Park Civic Association wants to have a benefit, they can. We have a big event with Directions for Youth coming up in a few months. They have opportunities to come together with their groups, potentially to raise money but more importantly to meet and spend time together. We have to be part of that for them. We have obligations way beyond just putting movies on screen and selling tickets.”

And although Hamel sees GFC’s scope as reaching well beyond the University District (“Regularly people will drive from other states to see the films we show here.”), he says “[GFC] fits perfectly into the mantra of the very best parts of college.”

“University is the most exciting, important time of our lives,” Hamel continues. “We learn about ourselves, and we learn about things we never knew about. If you come [to GFC] and take a chance on a movie you don’t know anything about, you have this opportunity to learn something new about the world and maybe even yourself.”

If it seems like GFC doesn’t operate like a typical movie theater, that’s because it isn’t one. Since July 2015, GFC has been run as a non-profit organization. Unlike many companies who make this change to combat financial issues, Hamel notes, the decision to switch to non-profit status was more the business model catching up with GFC’s content.

“So much of our programming already looked like non-profit programming,” Hamel explains. “I don’t see a lot of other theaters screening environmental programs, or doing free movies in the summer for kids if they show their library card. Other movie theaters aren’t partnering with nonprofits to raise money for their causes. That’s stuff that already looks like a non-profit, so the transition to non-profit gave people who wanted to support that the chance to donate money that wasn’t just directed at buying things.”

Of course, if there is a profit made, it would be reinvested into the theater to continue improving upon the experience for filmgoers. Better facilities and more new programs are just the start. It can already be seen in the Studio Ghibli program, a series that’s difficult to manage in the for-profit business model where it would have to replace a new release that might sell more tickets.

GFC has good support though. Hamel mentions they have some organizations that already help them with fundraising, and that they just launched their campaign targeting individual donors two months ago. And what they’ve found is that if they create a memorable, worthwhile theater experience, the people will come. Since taking over in 2009, attendance has grown by about 350 percent.

“When I talk about community, it’s a real thing,” Hamel concludes. “Yes I’m talking about University District and Weinland Park, yes I’m talking about Columbus, but I’m also talking about a community of people who really share that same love and affection for film that we do.”

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