BILLINGS — Giving Tuesday is always a big one for the Art House Cinema, but the nonprofit has never been short on community support.
In the seven years since Art House broke ground in downtown Billings, the organization has transformed from a single independent theater to reinvigorating the Babcock. And now, they've purchased the entire G&W building housing the Art House Cinema. They've quickly become a staple of the downtown economy.
"That’s why we’re so excited to buy the building," said executive director Matt Blakeslee. "It does feel like independent film is a pillar of downtown Billings."
Art House broke ground in the fall of 2014 on the backs of volunteers, opening in March 2015. The original theater is still largely unchanged - some new chairs and projection equipment were added during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the real upgrade lies behind a door adjacent to the screen.
"This is about 7,000 square feet where the bowling lanes used to be," Blakeslee said on a behind-the-scenes tour of the space Art House is set to expand into.
Longtime downtown dwellers will remember the old Center Lanes space well. Its 2007 closure certainly hurt downtown’s appeal, but the theater is more than making up for it.
"It's not only a pillar, but it's a true gem of our downtown," said Katy Easton, CEO of the Downtown Billings Alliance. "You get so many different aspects of arts and culture there."
"Recruiters from Billings Clinic, as they’re bringing in prospective employees, they say this is something that Billings has to offer," Blakeslee added.
They’re going to offer a lot more: three total theaters, seating over 200 people altogether, with a brand new kitchen for a full dinner and a show experience.
"Things that go well with a film, so we’re not going to do hot beef stew," Blakeslee joked. "That’s not good to eat in the dark."
To no surprise, he’s already had people offer to help cook, even though the space is still a year and a half from opening. But that’s why he's bullish on downtown’s prospects.
"I have trust and belief in our community because I know the people that are behind it," he said. "Rather than it just being a nameless, faceless 'Downtown Billings,' I know the people that are of a part of this and that bring me a lot of hope," Blakeslee said.
"People are investing," Easton said. "They see the opportunity. They see the potential that downtown Billings really has.
"Go to any city or town you love, I imagine you’ll say their downtown is cool. It's unlikely that you'd say, 'No, we really don't like their downtown,' if you really loved that place. So we want downtown Billings to be that place."
And the Art House is certainly cool.