Brian and Sharon Burke had it made, retiring from public education in their mid-fifties with healthy pensions. Instead of taking an around-the-world cruise or puttering around the house, they continued working – this time for scarcely any pay – by opening the business of their dreams, an art film theater.
The full count of U.S. movie theaters is just north of 5,000, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, and only a tiny fraction are single-screen operations like the Downing Film Center in Newburgh, New York, which has just 60 seats.
The story of how Brian and Sharon brought this business to life and made it a community gathering place – the mistakes they made, the lessons they learned – is a great primer for anyone starting a business on a shoestring and a prayer.
“I always loved movies,” Brian says. “As an assistant principal, I directed the talent show. When my son suggested we open a theater, I jumped at it. Our area has plenty of multiplexes but nothing that would play independent and foreign films.” The film center opened in the summer of 2006, and since then, the Burkes have never looked back. Their good humor, confidence and resilience has carried them through challenges and missteps to make their dream venture, where Brian takes tickets and Sharon pops corn, a success. I sat down with them before a Thursday matinee to hear what they’ve learned about running a small business.
Before buying anything, think! The Burkes were lucky in securing a former gift shop in a gentrified district of Newburgh, with restaurants and a riverfront promenade across the street. But the property owner wouldn’t let them bolt anything to the floor, so they couldn’t create risers for stadium seating, which would give everybody a full view of the screen. Sharon and Brian call the original chairs they bought to furnish the Downing their biggest mistake. “They were $85 apiece. Opening night we had 75 chairs piled in there, all on the same level. It was a foreign film, and no one could see the subtitles,” Brian recalls. The Burkes solved the sightline issue with a stroke of ingenuity, replacing the upright chairs with loungers from Ikea – in effect lowering the seats instead of raising them. With everybody’s gaze slanted upward, each row could view the screen, instead of the top of someone else’s head.
Start as a nonprofit, if that’s what you want to be. “We always wanted to become a 501(c)(3), but we ran as a profit-making venture for a while,” Brian says. Big mistake. This complicated the application process so much that it took four years to obtain nonprofit status. The Burkes launched the Downing with their savings, taking out a loan to purchase equipment. Before they could be approved for nonprofit status, they had to pay back every penny, and apply with a debt-free clean slate.