by Amy Moore
As I head up the steps and through the back door of the new Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points, the first thing I notice is that it looks like a real movie theater. Gone are the metal office chairs previously scattered across dingy carpet. In their place stand tidy rows of actual movie theater seats on newly constructed risers. Also gone are the unpredictably spaced tables, which necessitated reaching over one’s movie-going partner for the retrieval of drinks and snacks. Long, narrow tables now run the length of each row of seats, designed not only for ease of beverage retrieval, but also to have a low enough profile that they won’t block a movie-goer’s view of the screen. On the audiovisual front, there’s a brand-new screen, freshly tweaked sound system and acoustic ceiling tiles. There are even sound-dampening drapes clothing the previously naked walls, providing aesthetic, as well as aural, relief. Many of these features are standard to any theater worth its salt, but for them to be found here in Five Points means that for the first time in a very long while, the Riverside/Westside area has a movie theater able to compete with the multiplexes of the Southside or Orange Park.
As I settle down in one of the comfortable new seats to speak with the theater’s owners, I ponder the luxury of being able to place beer and popcorn not in a shared cupholder or on a faraway table, but directly in front of me at perfect arm-reaching height. This amenity, almost more than the fancy new screen and awe-inspiring sound system, sticks with me. Why has no one thought of this before? What’s more, Sun-Ray’s bold zero-tolerance policy toward texting and talking during movies represents a refreshing departure from the inevitable distractions of a typical night at the cineplex. As I begin to speak to Sun-Ray owners Tim and Shana Massett, one of the first things Tim suggests is that “it’s not rocket science”- this whole movie theater thing. Maybe not, but these two seem to be on to some pretty smart stuff. I’m withholding judgement: these two might be rocket scientists.
Veterans of Jacksonville’s movie theater scene (if there can be said to be such a thing), the two actually met behind the concession stand at the San Marco Theater, where both were working in 2003- a fitting start to a partnership that has now culminated in the acquisition, renovation and reopening of the former Five Points Theater under the new moniker, Sun-Ray Cinema. At the time that they met, Shana had recently graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston and decided to relocate to Jacksonville to teach music, taking the job at San Marco on the side. Tim, some in Jacksonville may remember, was also at the time operating an underground theater called The Pit and serving as programmer for the Jacksonville Film Festival. When he was offered the opportunity to build a movie theater from the ground up in Duluth, Minnesota, the couple picked up and moved, with neither expecting they’d be returning to Jacksonville. After Tim completed his project, however, the two began looking around for opportunities to acquire a movie theater of their own. Without imagining they’d end up back where they’d come from, Shana says, “We were keeping an eye out for the first thing that came available, and it just happened to be this.” It turned out, though, that “this” was an ailing theater that needed quite a bit of work (and money) to fit the vision the Massetts had been developing over the years. Still, it was in a location they felt had great potential, in a neighborhood with which they had been intimately acquainted before leaving Jacksonville. They began looking into raising money to acquire the space.
It was at this point, Shana tells me, that her father recommended they try fund-raising through crowdsourcing, a model popularized by the fundraising website Kickstarter. After looking at their options, they settled on a similar website called Ulule, which allowed them to set up a fundraising page within their parameters. For some watching from the outside, the results have been somewhat unexpected in that more than $100,000 was raised through a combination of small donations by individuals and support from private investors. Tim and Shana, though, say they weren’t surprised at the support the theater was able to garner. As Shana puts it, “We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think that the community would support it.” The two clearly know their market and their strengths. With the money needed to get started, they set about making the renovations the theater needed to offer the kind of movie-going experience the community had been waiting for.
Now that the Massetts have made those renovations, all over the course of an exhausting couple of months, they are eager to share their new, improved theater with the community that made it all possible. Asked about their vision for the future of Sun-Ray, both Tim and Shana answer in the same way; they want this to be a theater that “everybody comes to.” Shana says, “We don’t want people to think that it’s an upscale movie theater and save it for their big date night. It’s a regular place.” She thinks for a moment before adding with a smile, “This is not something you need to be cool enough to do.” This marketing of Sun-Ray as an everyday theater offering an experience comparable to places like Tinseltown and AMC is a common thread in the conversation. Shana describes their mission succinctly when she says, “I want people to come see the movies they were going to see anyway, but here.”
That said, there are some bonuses to Sun-Ray that can’t be found at a chain multiplex theater, namely what they serve their patrons. Instead of vats of soda and stale nachos, the menu will feature lots of organic and local options, with vegan and non-vegan items to choose from along the lines of hand-tossed pizzas (the Massetts’ own, long-perfected recipe), sandwiches, a popcorn fixings bar, and beer and wine. There is even talk of having a gourmet root beer or ginger ale custom-made for the theater by a local brewery. By the way, in addition to craft beverages, basics like Miller Lite and Yuengling will also be served with nary a raised eyebrow. So for those who prefer a no-frills approach to theater fare, there are options as well. Patrons will enjoy freshly prepared food delivered to their seats, which, in case I didn’t mention it before, are pretty darned comfortable. Some of the all-star vendors who will be supplying food and drink to the theater include Black Hog Farm, Intuition Ale Works, Bold City Brewery and Blue Buddha Foods, to name a few. When asked about working with these up-and-coming local businesses, Shana seems delighted to report that everyone they’ve worked with in the business community “has been super supportive,” and she looks forward to strong partnerships in the future.
The Massetts appear determined to create an environment that is not so much defined by being a place to see obscure critical favorites (though they will be playing some of those), but that is instead defined by being a good place to see any kind of movie. In fact, when asked whether they’re expecting their main support to come from that niche audience of independent film enthusiasts, both answer emphatically in the negative. Shana describes creating a place for everyone, saying, “We’re the farthest thing from movie snobs.” That doesn’t mean they don’t love independent and critical darlings, but they also enjoy and see the value of blockbusters. As Tim and Shana explain it, this will be their bread and butter. With plans to do up to five showings a day, the couple say the draw of the larger films will sustain the theater while affording them the luxury to play smaller, independent films. Shana notes that getting big numbers for mainstream favorites will allow them to “give a home” to the smaller movies that may not turn out as large an audience, but which nevertheless deserve to be seen.
Five Points may be the one of the best places in town to spot hipsters, artists and pretentious loafer types, but one thing the Massetts are careful to articulate throughout our conversation is that their new Sun-Ray Cinema is no elitist establishment. Yes, there are local craft brews on tap, and yes, there will be freshly prepared organic food and a popcorn bar with more fancy toppings than one can shake a stick at, but in the end, the thing the couple seems to want most, Tim says, “is to make it fun to go to the movies again.” Whether this means blockbuster films like David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, indie documentaries like Dragonslayer or cult horror movies like The Human Centipede, Sun-Ray has aimed so far to appeal to a variety of cinematic tastes. Currently open and offering a limited menu, the theater’s official grand opening is anticipated for mid-January. Patrons can watch Sun-Ray’s website for more details.
I promised myself as I began this article that I would make no puns that involved replacing the word “real” with “reel.” To that I say, “Thanks, me, for taking all the fun out of writing about a movie theater.” Instead of lazy wordplay, then, I will say this in conclusion: Sun-Ray Cinema looks to have real potential to become a contender for all kinds of moviegoers, from the blockbuster action movie lover to the art house fanatic. Toward the end of our interview, as we discuss what running a movie theater means to them, Shana and Tim agree upon the notion that “movies are the people’s entertainment.” Sun-Ray Cinema appears well-positioned to provide a strong local option for that entertainment.
A Sunny Outlook
by Amy Moore