Movie Community: Jimmy Sweeney's The Grand Berry Theater Is Fort Worth's Indie Film Arthouse
Jimmy Sweeney thinks movies are a high art best shared with others.
The husband-half of the wedded pair who founded The Grand Berry Theater in Fort Worth believed movies can foster a purposeful, community-driven experience. He has acted on his vision, and he and his wife’s theater is built and run to inspire connections and conversations around the medium he loves.
Founding The Grand Berry: Filling in a Gap
Jimmy and Brooke Sweeney noticed a gap in the Fort Worth theater scene. It wasn’t a physical gap or a space on the sidewalk of course – it was a gap in the market. No one was answering the demand for independent films, despite Fort Worth’s artistic subculture.
Both Jimmy and Brooke were film lovers, so they wanted to fill this lack with their own space. But they wanted to go a step further: Don’t just create an indie-film theater, make a space for a community of disparate identities and backgrounds to connect within.
“We wanted to provide a space that was safe and comfortable where people knew that they could go to see themselves represented on screen,” Jimmy said. “…[W]here representation happened and people could find a community around seeing themselves represented on screen.”
As Jimmy and Brooke have founded and run The Grand Berry, they have had the opportunity to see this vision come to life. The joy of such an experience, founded on a lifelong passion for film and a vision of what movies could inspire, has reaped immeasurable rewards for the young entrepreneurs.
A Passion for Film
Jimmy thinks that films are high art and that we should approach them as such. He noted that when people go to museums, they can talk about art or paintings with other people. It’s an interactive, fluid space.
Movies should be enjoyed in such manner.
“I think that the meaning of film is lost when you are just enjoying it by yourself on the couch,” says Jimmy. “Because you don’t have a way to talk to other people about it or relate to other people around it.”
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Jimmy’s always been passionate about movies and movie-going. During college he went to movies all the time and had friends who made films.
“[P]eople would all the time be doing like these 24 hour film festivals to make a short film. Just going to the movies was something that we did all the time.”
In college Jimmy would visit the Rave at the Ridgmar Mall once-a-week during some afternoon. At times, he’d be the only person in the theater.
“I don’t really enjoy watching movies at home that often, there are too many distractions…so the movie going experience for me has always been really meaningful to take you out of the environment that you consider normal and day-to-day and immerse yourself into whatever’s on screen.”
Jimmy is thus one of the highly-inspired visionaries who has realized a tangible business venture from his lifelong ideas and passion.
Constructed For Community
Given its specific values, The Grand Berry’s selection of movies is very important: the variety of their film selection must speak for several, diverse perspectives. Beyond film selection, though, the construction of the physical space is as important.
Jimmy explained that they designed the theater with “warm moody colors” and tried to give the place a “homey living room type of experience.” He wanted to avoid the “stuffy environment” that art-house theaters can sometimes create. Also avoided is the dark, impersonal auditoriums of large movie theaters.
Further, employees engage patrons on what they watched when they walk out of the movie. This rounds out the entire experience as a community-building activity.
“[T]hat value really dictated the whole way that we set up our space,” said Jimmy.
On Marketing Indie Films
The Grand Berry shows independent – “indie” – films. Jimmy has discovered since opening the theater how difficult it is to market these. High-profile indie films that win awards, like last year’s Parasite, are easy to sell, but how do you get people to come out for a movie most have never heard of?
The indie film in question could be great and, as Jimmy said, “just a level of notoriety below [Parasite]”, but it’s exponentially more difficult to market. The main issue is that people aren’t Googling these obscure films.
“I would say 90% of our business comes from people Googling a film and then seeing that we have a show time for it, rather than being driven by our social media or branding,” says Jimmy. Movies need buzz before people can find them on the popular search engine.
Marketing can be as simple as that: is what we’re selling visible on Google? And if not, how do you spread awareness?
A keen awareness of one’s value is fundamental to marketing, and Jimmy understood that if The Grand Berry’s movies themselves did not bring people in, their community-driven experience would. As he said:
“[T]he biggest unexpected challenge has definitely been, ‘How do we market our experience to where people will come, regardless of what we're showing?’ Like they will come because they value what we are doing as opposed to just, ‘Oh, there is a movie that I want to see.’
“And so a lot of that just takes time of building up the community around what we're doing. So that people see like, ‘Oh, I trust that whatever I go and see there is something that I'm going to enjoy or be challenged by or enjoy the community around or having a conversation about afterwards. Rather than just, ‘Oh, it's x, y, and z big movie that I have seen advertised for or heard about, like, I'm only going to go then.’”
The Isolating Effect of Running a Small Business
When I asked Jimmy what his greatest daily challenge in running a small business was, I received an unexpected but no less reasonable answer, especially for the kind of business he runs:
Most of the time Jimmy’s customers are watching a film, so his interaction with them comes in short bursts. This is different from having a steady stream of customers, such as one might have at a food shop.
Most of the workday is filled with completing tasks alone. This isolation breeds greater appreciation for interactivity when it comes.
“Learn to appreciate the people who are really intentional about reaching out and coming by just to say ‘Hey’ and check in on you. So I think that's a something that I've heard echoed by a lot of entrepreneurs is it's a lot of really isolating time and you have to set up community networks around yourself to combat that, or you just sort of find yourself in a rut of feeling isolated.”
Thus, networking not only brings practical benefits, but psychological benefits as well. No business should be an island – not even a small indie theater.
The Fort Worth Film Scene
There is a network of movie lovers and creators throughout DFW and Fort Worth that Jimmy taps into. From my discussion with him, I learned that the Dallas - Fort Worth Theater Community is livelier than I had previously thought, and Fort Worth even has a notable film scene.
Nonetheless, Jimmy admitted that The Grand Berry is still unique in Fort Worth given their niche market. The closest arthouse theater is the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff. According to Jimmy, this theater, and the whole independent arthouse theater network, has been very helpful. The reason is because these theater owners are very passionate about what they’re doing and the spaces that they have.
But it isn’t just the arthouse theater scene that’s supportive:
“People are really supportive and the Fort Worth, small business seed is incredibly supportive
People are super quick to want to work together to promote events or promote each other or rally around each other. If we're fighting for the same things. And so that's it like any almost any small business owner that I'm introduced to or come across in Fort Worth is incredibly supportive and wants to figure out how we can work together.”
Fort Worth has another nice bonus for indie theaters. The Grand Berry doesn’t face a ton of competition in the area as, according to Jimmy, larger theaters don’t often run the movies Grand Berry does, and when they do it’s only for around a week.
By proxy, this means it’s easier for theaters like The Grand Berry to work with distributors. Fort Worth is the 13th largest city in the U.S., so The Grand Berry can give indie-film distributors access to that market, and they’re one of the rare theaters in town to do so.
“It's like, oh, the, the head cinematographer…shows up to watch a movie with us and then eventually they start doing like a test screening of the film with us,” Jimmy said. “And so because those people are here in Fort Worth, they are looking for places that are affordable that can provide a space where they can come and enjoy movies that they may be a little more into than what the AMC is necessarily showing and so having that production scene in Fort Worth definitely helps in seeing talent come to the area and eventually that helps broaden what we can show as well as, like, who we can bring in to do Q and As or discussions after films.”There’s also a “pretty thriving” film production scene in Fort Worth, says Jimmy. He explains that this is due to the Fort Worth Film Commission, who markets the Fort Worth area as a place for film production. The initiative has allowed Jimmy to meet several filmmakers.
And it’s not just the Film Commission helping. Jimmy also explained that the near south side of Fort Worth essentially provides tax breaks for film production. Cities provide such breaks because a film crew coming through and spending around a month in the city helps out the local economy.
“Fort Worth and Austin are the only two places in Texas that provide that. And that's why you see a lot of films that are produced and shot in LA and Atlanta and Louisiana, because they have these incentives in place for people to bring production.”
So there are hidden positives in Fort Worth. If you wanted to produce a film here and run an indie-movie theater, there is not a lot of competition, and you can use tax breaks to your advantage.
Navigating COVID-19 As a Community-Based Theater
But even with all the support in the world, challenges can still be weighty. That came to small businesses around the world this past spring.
A core part of The Grand Berry’s mission is community. People don’t just come here to watch a movie, they come here to meet new people and engage with others afterwards. So how does such a place fare amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
Jimmy explained that they wanted to respond a little differently than most other companies.
“Every business was trying to figure out how to get support from everyone in new and different ways. And so we just felt inundated with like, ‘Oh, we're doing curbside now’ or ‘This is how you can support us now’, ‘Here's a GoFundMe as a tip jar for our employees’ and we just had to take a step back and say, ‘Do we want to continue to be part of this inundation?’ None of which were bad things, like all of them were good things, but people only have so many dollars and we felt like we were in a place to step back and say we want to help support the community around us rather than try and throw our nose in there too far.”
How did they go about this? One, they offered a streaming service with movies that would have been released theatrically were it not for the pandemic. So they didn’t shut down completely, but they did choose to take a more subdued approach in their efforts to remain active during the pandemic, supporting their community with some films for streaming.
Seeing The Vision Actualized
Back in late January, in the days before the pandemic, Jimmy connected with a young woman named Ambriel Turntine [maybe ask him for her name; this is not the correct spelling] who had ideas for programs the theater could run. One of the first pitches she had was for Black History Month.Whether during the pandemic or before it, there are challenges and rewards in running an indie-movie theater, but for a mission-driven one like The Grand Berry there is a great reward in witnessing its mission lived out.
The theater showed Cabin in the Sky, an MGM movie from the 30s that is one of MGM’s only all-black cast films. She also organized a panel of black leaders in the community to talk about the importance of representation in movies.
Jimmy talked about the inspiration from this:
“And just like getting to see the power of her voice as she led these people in this conversation to a diverse audience was just one of those things where I sat there and it was just like, yeah, like this is what we wanted, and it didn't all happen because of my pursuit. Like it happened, in coming to the recognition that I need to step back … and make sure that other people's voices are heard. And so just like getting to do that in a few other events we had around Black History Month in February. Just really really cool to see our mission and vision lived out in a lot of ways.”
It’s inspirational moments like these that reaffirm Jimmy in his mission. The business of a small indie-movie theater has brought interesting films to Fort Worth and created a sense of community. It’s simply one person’s lifelong love of movies and a vision concerning them translated into a small business venture. Yet The Grand Berry has created enormous inspiration, has plugged into the Fort Worth film scene, and has allowed communities to come together.
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.).