Local Hero: Igniting A Community Movie Theater

It is the first week of December in Central Indiana. Many folks feel that Thanksgiving heralds the launch of the Christmas season, but many and I mean many would vehemently disagree with you. Many families would argue that it’s not until they have seen “A Christmas Story” at the Historic Artcraft Theatre does the Christmas season truly begin. It is not until Rob Shilts comes on stage to does his pre-show that many, me included start getting that infectious Christmas spirit. Once Steve Blair lights up his pair of Simplex projectors and the faint rattle of a 35mm print being projected can this Holiday celebration truly begin.

When I moved to Franklin Indiana, the Artcraft Theatre was a classic 1923 movie palace down on its luck. It had 623 seats and with the shifting tide of movie exhibition was finding itself without a focus or a plan. Many other theaters had seen a similar fate and one after another were shuttered, victims of the great American box store and their requisite evisceration of the downtown core.

It was obvious to me at that time that the Artcraft Theatre was doomed to meet the same fate, but fate had other ideas.

In 1995 Wisconsin native Rob Shilts arrived in town. With a Bachelor of Architecture degree firmly in hand, Rob took the helm of Franklin Heritage, an organization formed in 1983 and dedicated to preserving the historic nature of this small Mid-West City. Many, including myself, saw the Artcraft as a victim of a rapidly changing movie economy. Rob Shilts did not. He saw what could be and in his mind a plan took shape. In 2003, the owners of the Artcraft Theatre approached Franklin Heritage to take over the theater. Rob jumped at the chance to acquire theater. He knew full well you can remodel houses, encourage historically correct construction but if a downtown core and a historic district were ever to grow and become vital again, you would have to put a heart back into place. Rob Shilts knew that by re-vitalizing the Artcraft what you were doing concurrently was revitalizing the downtown core.

On January 21, 2004 the Board of Directors of Franklin Heritage voted 15-3 to proceed with the purchase of The Artcraft and its contents. The purchase is finalized on April 20th, 2004. On that day a flame was lit, a flame that would slowly grow. Franklin was given back its heart.

The theater and its audience were rebuilt slowly, a movie was shown once a month, then once every two weeks and now every week. Rob knew the power of nostalgia, that people wanted to go to a place and remember what life was like. He brilliantly re-constructed a movie-going experience that reflected the memories of those people who’s going to the movies was a key part of their past. He also showed modern audiences the sanctity of the movie-going experience. That movie-going was not about high priced concessions or fluffy seats, movie-going at its core was about a community and the encouragement of that community.

A younger generation of moviegoers has been introduced to Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and Myrna Loy. Teenagers can witness the celebration of American innocence that is American Graffiti and the sheer masterful presentation of suspense that is Psycho. Seeing a 17-year-old laughing at the antics of Ma and Pa Kettle in the year 2019 is a joyful thing to see. Every time the Historic Artcraft Theatre plays Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” I gleefully rush to the theater just to witness the Technicolor lushness of that movie projected in 35mm. I am literally breathless after each showing.

Through measured growth and thoughtful evolution, which is a reflection of the audience it serves, the Historic Artcraft has enjoyed increasing box office at a time when the global theatrical box office is in decline. People regularly drive two hours to take in a movie they love in glorious 35mm. What is even more amazing is that in reviewing box office reports, the Artcraft is regularly the global leader in screening retro or classic cinema titles. During the Christmas season, the Artcraft’s box office per showing dwarfs any other theater’s box office.

What Rob Shilts has done is to train a dedicated audience to love movies again. His passion and his attention to detail is obvious and is more than infectious. If a community movie theater is a Church, then The Historic Artcraft is the Vatican. From a programming perspective, community engagement and box office, in my opinion, The Historic Artcraft is the best community-based movie theater in North America.

What Rob has done is nothing short of a miracle. He has executed a plan in a thoughtful measured way that at all times reflected the community he is serving. The programming and the methodology are derived by looking at people who come to the theater, are loyal to the theater and in turn, the theater gives them what they want. Rob ensures that the future of The Historic Artcraft Theatre is shaped primarily by the people who are part of the Artcraft family. Rob has re-built this grand old lady with passion, patience and with deep compassion for his community. Wrap all of this in the package of showmanship and you have an electric combination. When “Christmas Vacation” plays an old battered RV sits in front of the theater. When “Back to The Future” plays a Delorean is parked nearby. Last summer I was exiting a nearby restaurant and I stopped dead in my tracks , rubbing my eyes to see if what I was looking at was correct…..Shilts had managed to get his hands on an Emu celebrating the showing of “Napoleon Dynamite. This my dear friends is probably one of the last great showmen in this business.

Every movie has a short play giving the ultra-condensed version of the movie, there is always a prize giveaway and a long-distance award. Followed by the playing of the National Anthem, when is the last time you saw that? Of course, this is followed by a classic Warner Brothers cartoon and of course a feature projected in 35mm. Steve Blair, the projectionist at the theater takes such care with the prints that many studios have made the statement the movies seem to always arrive back in better condition.

In my early encounters with Rob Shilts, I never really got where he was coming from and frankly, at times, I found him frustrating and perplexing. He was measured, disciplined and focused. He knew he had a job and he knew what he had to do. I, on the other hand, can be a tad impulsive and reminiscent of a bull in a china shop. As I got older though and reflected more about what he was doing I gained an increasing amount of respect for the man. As I look back and see what he has created and how that model he defined what I feel is the key to both the survival and revival of the community theater I kind of look at him with a bit of awe. Coupled with that I can tell you from recent personal experience, he is damned decent human being. This is someone who truly can be called a local hero and who has shaped and defined a way forward for the redemption of the community movie theater and of his community. Franklin Indiana has been more than blessed with his contributions, and I truly hope community theaters globally pay deep attention to what he has created and what he continues to create.

He is an innovator, a leader and a true shepherd of the movie-going experience.

Thank you, Mr. Shilts,

Please take a look at the Historic Artcraft Theatre www.historicartcrafttheatre.org