Multiplex Blues: The Nightlight Cinema is a Bright Light for Akron Movie Buffs

Steve Felix stays busy. Not only is the Akron native a killer freelance designer and videographer, he's also the executive director of Akron's Nightlight Cinema, a single-screen theater which has been showing two films a night to sold-out crowds since July 1. Felix ran Akron Film+Pixel, a film series that screened in pop-up locations around Akron, for almost 20 years. Now the Nightlight, a converted warehouse on North High Street, is the permanent home for the indie, artsy stuff. Felix can't wait to keep growing and improving the theater in the months to come. He caught up with Scene on a Monday afternoon, chatting with us by phone from Akron about the Nightlight and why Clevelanders should go check it out if they haven't already.

Sam Allard: So you opened up the Nightlight back in July.

Steve Felix: Yeah, wow, it's almost exactly six months. Six months and one week.

SA: And how's it been? Stressful?

SF: It's been really good, actually ahead of our expectations in terms of attendance, so I think we'll be around for a while. We're relieved to see it's all working.

SA: You only have 50 seats, right? And one screen?

SF: Correct.

SA: Does that scare you, from a profitability standpoint?  

SF: Well, we're set up to run that way, and we kept our expenses in line with those expectations. We do have that attendance ceiling, and we'd love to be able to see more people on the weekend when it tends to sell out, but we're looking into the possibility of adding another screen in the same facility sometime in the next year or two to help with that.

SA: This weekend, you're showing Whiplash and Birdman, two Golden Globe winners. (Editor's Note: This interview was conducted in early January.)

SF: Good timing, right?  

SA: More like good planning. Were you expecting those two to get wins?

SF: I think the award season releases are just planned that way, not necessarily by us. You have the studios to thank. It all comes together.

SA: With only one screen, how do you balance between contemporary indie, foreign, and classic fare?

SF: I guess I would just say that there is a balance. We do all three of those things. We focus on new releases and we try not to discriminate between American and foreign. We just try to show the best films, those that are getting the most buzz among our audience, within the realm of films that don't play at the multiplexes.

SA: At the [Cleveland Institute of Art]Cinematheque up here, I know that contemporary American indies often don't perform as well. Is that true for you guys too?

SF: Within six months, we've seen it both ways. We've seen movies that we expected to do really well that didn't. And we've also seen re-releases or more repertory films do really well. We did Diehard for a week over Christmas and that was a big holiday success for us. I don't know. It's hard to say because there's a different interplay up in Cleveland between the Cinematheque and the Cedar Lee Theater. In Akron, we had neither of those things. So we're responding to a hierarchy of needs here, that people want and need both of those things.

SA: So there's no Cedar Lee equivalent down in Akron?

SF: Not anymore. Cleveland Cinemas had a theater at Chapel Hill for awhile, but it wasn't Cedar Lee-style programming. But, I mean, Akronites go to the Cedar Lee.

SA: The first few months of the year typically feature a lot of garbage from the major studios. Are you expecting an uptick in business?

SF: It is nice that we get to catch up on some after-releases during this time. I think we're going to do well. I'm definitely pretty excited about our next couple months. And we have the luxury, because there's a dry spot in art house releases as well, so we can always do some great repertory work.  

SA: Any specialty programs for 2015? A midnight-movie series?

SF: I think we're gonna get something like that together. Right now, we have our annual, or perennial, events. We've got a scoring event where we bring area musicians together to score a film.

SA: Do you get many folks from Cleveland coming down?

SF: We haven't tracked it that much. I get the sense that it's mostly Akron, and some Canton audience. Cleveland does have the Cedar Lee and the Cinematheque, though. There are definitely reasons to come down occasionally, but for the most part, we're not seeing that yet.

SA: What's your pitch? Why should Clevelanders make the trek?

SF: I'd say that you're lucky to have some resources up there already, but the pitch would be: It's an intimate setting. We have a full bar. It's a different, more community-focused way to see a movie. Sometimes we have discussions after the films. And every once in awhile, we get an exclusive down here. It's definitely one of the most social screening experiences you're going to find.

SA: How do you mean?

SF: Just in terms of the intimacy and the discussion. We also do personal introductions before all the films.  

SA: Anything you're super stoked to show soon that's not gonna get much play up here?

SF: I don't know what the play in Cleveland will be, if any, but we've got a film called Song of the Sea coming here next month. It's an animated film, by the director of The Secret of Kells. The trailer's really beautiful and I'm really looking forward to seeing it as an animation buff.