The lights dim and movie-goers shuffle into their green leather seats, waiting for the movie to begin. The crinkling of wrappers and bottle caps popping ensues; at this theatre in Phoenix, every night consists of half-pound tamales, an ice-cold beer and an indie flick.
When Kelly Aubey opened FilmBar in 2011, he did so as an activist movement to protect culture in the city, rather than as a business venture.
“I had been living in Phoenix for several decades and saw these really cool culture scenes start to develop and then get wiped out by the ‘wholesale sale’ of our culture,” Aubey said. “I got tired of seeing that, so when I was older I had the means to do something about it.”
Aubey said he knew there was a market audience not being targeted in terms of movie genres, so he made sure his space did just that. The FilmBar specializes in independent and foreign films as well as cult classics, retro and locally made films.
Several shows are paired with handpicked beers and wines, like a recent cult-classic zombie film that was paired with a Ninkasi brewed beer called Dawn of the Red.
It’s the fine, quirky details like the drink pairings, the locally-made tamales and the decorations that Aubey says set his theatre apart. According to him, FilmBar is tapping into something that the bigger chains might not be committing to a unique, end-to-end movie-going experience.
“We would not have done well if we just came off as a money-grab,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons numbers are slowly flagging for the chains; if it is just a box, and a delivery mechanism for overpriced popcorn and a movie, it will eventually be doomed to fail because you can do that at home for cheaper.”
Aubey says the FilmBar’s authenticity is what keeps them afloat. Since opening its doors in 2011, the theatre has seen a steady 12 percent growth each year, and is on track to hit 14 percent this year.
The cut-throat movie industry and the fact that FilmBar only has one screen does hinder the theatre’s growth, Aubey says. Bigger titles mean more competition and requires something called a “clean screen”, a guarantee that the film will be the one thing playing on one screen for a specific amount of time.
“With only one screen here, I can’t play the same movie for four weeks,” Aubey said. “I can’t do that to my business.”
The lack of screens doesn’t seem to hinder audience satisfaction.
“You can tell there’s a lot of history here,” said Mark David, visiting from Missouri. “They offer something you can’t find in other cities, it feels more intimate. And the tamales! Locally made food is something you can’t get at a big theatre.”
Kelly’s passion for preserving culture for the sake of the community doesn’t go unnoticed by employees.
“Kelly’s mission is that FilmBar needs to be something for the community, not just a business project,” said employee Daryl Scherrer. “It’s a place where everybody is welcome. Nobody at FilmBar is ‘too cool’ for anybody. We want to be able to be that cool place people stumble upon, but we want them to feel cool for having found it, too.”
Scherrer said the theatre has found the perfect balance of being artsy and appealing, but never pretentious.
Besides being a space built for the community, the space was built by the community, according to Aubey. All the designs and artwork inside the theatre were designed by local artists and “cool kids”, just another way Aubey has kept culture thriving in his theatre.
The give-and-take for having such an alluring space is the fact that advertisement is done solely through word of mouth. Aubey said he spent less than $40 on advertising in the month of October.
While the FilmBar has won numerous awards since opening, its thriving success is something Aubey will never talk about publically.
“I operate this space much like my own personality,” he said. “I hate that everything nowadays is somebody trying to sell you something, cramming it down our throats, and I’m not going to do that to people. We’ve had successes, and I’m very grateful for them, but I will never, ever stick that in somebody’s face.”
In terms of what’s next for the FilmBar, Aubey said he is “mulling over” the logistics of lowering the current age restriction of 21 down to 18. He also said he would eventually love to do a “kid’s night”, and show foreign movies targeted towards a younger audience.
“We’re sort of the ‘weird kid’ in terms of movie theatres, and what we’re finding is that there’s a hell of a lot more people out there who like the weird kids,” said Aubey.