Sometimes, The Best Parallel Is Perpendicular

A few months ago I had an intriguing email exchange with Erik Hanberg, former Managing Director of the Grand Cinema, a non-profit art-house movie theater in downtown Tacoma, WA. We were discussing the similarities and differences between the field of orchestra management and art-house movie theaters and he shared an instance from his time managing the theater when he tried to find as many parallels as he could from neighboring performing arts groups to help him run the theater. As a result of our exchange, Erik put together some intriguing observations in the form of a stand-alone blog post which I’m pleased to share as a guest post…

How Is My Orchestra Like a Movie Theater?
By: Erik Hanberg

For two and a half years, I was the Managing Director of the Grand Cinema, a non-profit art-house movie theater in Tacoma, WA.

It was the result of some freak cosmic alignment that I was able to get hired. I had good non-profit experience, knowledge of the theater, event planning and marketing experience, a real love of the mission … but I was just 23. The Board didn’t realize how old I was until they read it in the paper after I was hired. They knew I was young, but that young? I think that caught them a little off-guard, now that they were entrusting me with a $700,000 annual budget.

I felt confident I could do the job, and I knew a lot going in. But I also knew, perhaps most importantly, that there was a lot I didn’t know. I was young and excited and I had a million ideas—but which were viable? Which were going to turn into unforeseen money pits? Which could I present to the Board and say, "This program has been very successful in other theaters," with documentation to back me up?

The problem I faced running a non-profit, three-screen, art-house movie theater became pretty apparent: I had few parallels to help inform decisions. Had I been the director of an orchestra, a community theater, or a small historical museum, there might be hundreds of organizations across the country similar to mine. Not so at the Grand.

So I improvised. I decided to look for help and expertise elsewhere. I asked myself, how is my movie theater like an art museum? What I can learn from them? Or how is the Grand like a local community theater? How are we similar, how are we different?

I found this exercise to be invaluable as I weighed decisions.

By comparing the Grand to an art museum, I saw that the relationship they had to traveling exhibits was not unlike the Grand’s dependence on Fox Searchlight, Miramax, and other independent film studios. Once I’d realized that, my first goal was to reduce that dependence as much as I could—after all, if the movies coming out of Hollywood were bad one year, our theater was going to take a hit. We decided to start developing our own filmmakers. We offered them a chance to compete with a three-day film competition, helped them get better through filmmaking workshops, and then offered any local filmmakers the chance to premiere their movie for free at the Grand (we sold them a lot of popcorn on those nights).

By comparing the Grand to a symphony, I realized that we both faced the same competition: home entertainment systems that allowed patrons to watch movies or listen to CDs at home. So I started looking for more compelling reasons to get people out to the theater, like providing a live score to a silent film and having weekly film discussion groups with every new movie.

Importantly, this exercise also helped me realize that even though the Grand was superficially similar to a community theater operation, our business models, our products, and our basic operations were radically different. Understanding the business models of other organizations helped me ensure that I wouldn’t draw the wrong lessons and embark on a project that was ill-suited to us—no matter how well it did for another arts organization.

I don’t mean to suggest that these comparisons were quick and easy to make or that the answers I took away are as simple as I portray here. But I do know that while I was at the Grand we faced a million threats to the theater (tenant/landlord issues, local competition, rapidly changing technology, competition with home media, competition for grants and donations, tight parking, customer retention, etc) that many—if not most—arts organizations face.

Looking at how arts organizations outside your field handle those threats will help you see opportunities and solutions you might have missed before.

In addition to his work in the performing arts, Erik is the author of erikemery.com, a blog that covers news and happenings in Seattle’s South Sound.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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