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Film

On Thursday, Nov. 16 — just before a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” — representatives from media server and streaming company Plex announced that the Little Art Theatre is the 2023 recipient of a $100,000 “Theater of Dreams” grant. Pictured in the center is Little Art Development and Community Impact Director Katherine Eckstrand who learned of the award just moments after entering the theater’s auditorium to cheers from the audience. (Photo by Lauren "Chuck" Shows)

Little Art Theatre receives $100,000 grant

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Just before the lights went down for a screening of “The Wizard of Oz” last Thursday, Nov. 16, Little Art Theatre Development and Community Impact Director Katherine Eckstrand walked into the auditorium to cheers from a full house crowd.

That was when Eckstrand discovered what those in the audience had learned only moments before: That the Little Art had been selected to receive a $100,000 grant from independent media server and streaming company Plex.

The Plex “Theater of Dreams” grant was more than a month in the making, with Eckstrand having applied for it on behalf of the theater in October; the grant application was accompanied by an appeal video crafted by local resident and filmmaker Steven Bognar.

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The News spoke with Scott Hancock, Plex’s vice president of marketing, only hours before the grant announcement was made at the theater. The 15-year-old company — which debuted its free, ad-supported streaming service in 2019 — dedicates 1% of its revenue to an annual giving fund, which is donated to nonprofit organizations.

Hancock said Plex’s giving focus on nonprofit, independent movie theaters this year is new.

“[Plex is] an independent competing with the giants of the industry, much like the Little Art,” he said. “We wanted to focus on an independent theater that has a really strong connection to the community.”

He added that the application process for the grant was rigorous, with more than 100 community movie theaters being evaluated on their strong community bonds and the impact the grant would have.

“One-hundred-thousand dollars is a significant investment for us, and it had to be meaningful for the [selected] theater,” he said.

Though Plex had already chosen the Little Art to receive the grant by the time the company’s employees came to town last week, Hancock said spending time at the Emporium talking to local residents about the potential grant only solidified the feeling that the company had made the right decision.

“We had wine and beer and chatted with everybody, and they were passionate — about the town, but also the theater,”  he said. “Everybody made a point to come up to us and say, ‘If you choose the Little Art, you’re making the right choice.’”

A Plex film crew spent several days last week filming in the theater and around the village in the lead-up to the reveal. Hancock said sending a whole film crew to Yellow Springs meant creating a ruse for the Little Art staff and board, as only two theater employees knew the Little Art would receive the grant in advance.

“We created a backstory that we wanted to come and get some extra footage so we could better make our decision,” Hancock said. “We’re actually creating a reveal video; that video will be released Dec. 20.”

On the evening of the reveal, audience members settled into their seats to watch “The Wizard of Oz” — but were surprised to find the usual pre-show trailers replaced by a short video detailing the “Theater of Dreams” grant program.

After the video — as Eckstrand was in the lobby speaking with Plex representatives — the audience read several slides on the theater’s screen, which stated: “[Eckstrand] thinks we are filming tonight as part of a documentary. We are actually here to give the Little Art Theatre $100,000. She has no idea.”

The theater erupted in gasps at the revelation, but following cues from Plex employees on stage, subdued their cheers long enough to read: “[Eckstrand] is about to enter the room. Get ready to clap as she walks to this screen, and give her a standing ovation.”

The audience was happy to follow instructions as the auditorium door opened. Eckstrand walked down the aisle, greeting those present — but it wasn’t until she had nearly reached the stage that she read what was on the screen: “Congratulations Little Art Theatre!”

“How many of you knew this?” Eckstrand asked — shocked, but all smiles — after she took the stage.

“I’m breathless, but I’m very excited for the theater, for the community,” she said. “This could not have been done without this special place — Yellow Springs, Ohio — and without all of the wonderful people here. I have to thank you all for your support over the many years, and for your future support, so that we can keep this precious, wonderful landmark going into our second century.”

Playfully wondering if even that night’s screening were part of the ruse, she added, to laughter: “We are showing the movie, right?”

The $100,000 grant is the largest the theater has received since Eckstrand came aboard at the Little Art earlier this year — first as acting executive director in February, and then transitioning to her current fundraising and grant-writing role in September.

According to Theater Manager Caleab Wyant, the staff and board of the Little Art haven’t yet decided where all of the $100,000 grant will be allocated. However, he said, a portion of the funds will likely go toward a redesign of the theater’s marquee — or rather, a return to a previous design.

“We’re hoping to restore the previous Art Deco marquee design,” Wyant said.

The Little Art has had several marquees over its 94-year history; the current marquee design was instituted in the 1970s. Before that, the theater — then the Little Theatre — was heralded by a stylized Art Deco marquee wrapped in neon, with the theater’s name centered in an arch. In the 1950s, the wrap-around neon lights were removed from the marquee so that upcoming film titles could be advertised and changed out weekly.

Now that the grant has been awarded, its reveal may not be the last Yellow Springers see of Plex.

Hancock told the News that the company’s 120-plus employees — all of whom work remotely — often meet up in small, in-person groups in various locations around the world. Plex pays for these meetups, but incentivizes employees to get to know the communities that host them by paying an extra stipend for community volunteer work.

Hancock said Plex intends to encourage employees to host their meet-ups in the village — and while they’re at it, to volunteer at the Little Art.

“We really want to invest in these theaters — not just this one-time, $100,000 grant,” he said.

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