Five Points is a character filled section of Jacksonville’s historic Riverside neighborhood. Park Street cuts through the center of Five Points and the street is lined with unique shops, restaurants, and bars. Based on geographic size, Jacksonville is the largest city in the Continental United States (sorry Jacksonville, there are four cities in Alaska bigger than you), and because of that not all areas are pedestrian friendly. That’s not the case in Five Points, however, and as you walk down Park Street its easy to feel nostalgic for small town “Main Street.”
Nestled in the middle of Park Street is Sun-Ray Cinema, a historic two screen movie theater. Tim Massett and Shana David-Massett opened Sun-Ray in 2011. 85% of the movies screened at Sun-Ray are blockbuster films shown in modern day megaplexes. However, the Massetts carefully select what films they show to maintain the integrity of the theater. Sun-Ray oozes charm and audiences can watch movies in a setting that creates a cinematic experience, which is something that suburban megaplexes simply cannot offer. By showing blockbuster films Tim and Shana are able to fund their passion for screening independent films and organizing unique events, such as 2014’s 26-hour nonstop “Twin Peaks” marathon or live commentary/Q&A’s with independent film Directors (Richard Kelly, Todd Solondz, and John Cameron Mitchel, to name a few).
Sun-Ray also fills a void for those individuals that do not have television. This year the theater screened all three Presidential debated, which aired on WJCT. For fans of AMC‘s “The Walking Dead, Sun-Ray hosts Sunday screenings with season seven’s 10/23 premier already sold out.
Although Sun-Ray didn’t open until 2011, the building has a rich history of film. The Riverside Theater opened in that location in 1927 and it was the first theater in Florida equipped to show “talking pictures.” In addition to sound, the theater was also equipped with air conditioning, something that to this day is highly valued in the hot southern climate but at the time was not offered in many venues.
Inside the doors of Sun-Ray you’ll find a unique theater experience. The interior walls are adorned with murals painted by Shaun Thurston and the theater offers a full menu(including vegan friendly snacks and entrees!) and food service. Even items on their menu are linked to Jacksonville and its film history, such as the Black Lagoon Supreme pizza.
Sun-Ray is a venue for entertainment but it’s also a place where moviegoers can receive an education. This year they featured a yearlong series celebrating the career of Orson Welles. The series, titled “101 Years of Orson Welles” comprises 12 films in total, three of which remain to be screened, “Touch of Evil” (11/10 and 11/13), “F for Fake” (12/15 and 12/18), and “Macbeth” (12/4 and 12/17). Sun-Ray also featured a film retrospective of Stanley Kubrick during the months of August, September, and October, as well as a Universal Monster series throughout the month of October. Tim and Shana are planning a Paul Newman series for spring 2017.
I conducted a 10 Questions interview with Sun-Ray Cinemas Co-Owners, Tim Massett and Shana David-Massett. Tim’s career at the cinema began in Austin, Texas in 1997 as a Projectionist and Programmer for the first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Tim returned to his hometown of Jacksonville in 2001 and began working at the historic San Marco Theatre. Prior to moving to Florida, Shana held the role of Executive Director for the Duluth Homegrown Music Festival, an annual music festival in Duluth, Minnesota that features 150 performing acts spread across 24 different venues. In addition to her role at Sun-Ray, Shana also owns a private studio, where, since 2003, she offers music lessons to adults and children.
10 Questions with Tim Massett and Shana David-Massett
What is the mission of your organization?
We want to make it fun and interesting to go to the movies again by offering a variety of films and food that pleases every taste. Sun-Ray screens everything from giant blockbusters to movies that wouldn’t otherwise play in a small market like Jacksonville.
When was your organization formed and how has it grown?
We opened our Five Points location in 2011 as a single screen theatre in a building that had struggled to maintain a moviegoing audience since the 1970s. Film exhibition changed big time as theatres shifted to building megaplexes in the suburbs and moviegoers had the option to move away from little theatres that hadn’t or couldn’t up their game. We made some immediate updates including installing theatre seating, a new screen, adjusting sound, and generally making the space look more like what 21stcentury moviegoers (justifiably) expect to get when they pay for a movie ticket.
Three years ago we opened a second auditorium, which greatly expanded our capacity to play films – some weeks we’re playing eight different movies. That variety, combined with earning the trust of audiences over time, has really resulted in changing the moviegoing habits of a lot of people. We have quadrupled our total admissions over five years.
What strategies are in place within your organization for you to engage your audiences?
I don’t know that I’d call it a strategy, but I think a key to our success is that we are genuinely grateful to anyone who walks through our door and we don’t hide it. We often hear that the experience of going to the movies has become homogenized, and that customer service is not a focus at most theatres so I think the high bar we set for ourselves naturally sets us apart. We are committed to ensuring that every visit for every guest is flawless, and on the rare occasions that we don’t meet our own standards we recognize and adjust on the fly.
We are committed to constantly reinvesting in the business and in the building, trying to overcome the challenges we face running a movie theatre in a historic space. Audiences pick up on these ongoing improvements and feel a sense of ownership that they wouldn’t otherwise have if we weren’t always seeking to improve.
Why is art and culture important?
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that my perspective is the only one. Film enables us to see the world from someone else’s point of view. That broadening of consciousness is something we miss out on when we’re limited in our access to arts and culture.
What’s your organization’s next major milestone and is this milestone part of a long-term plan?
Sun-Ray is launching its first film and music festival in March 2017. We’re calling it Sleeping Giant Festival and it definitely extends our objective of offering affordable entertainment that otherwise wouldn’t be available in a city of our size. People are willing to take risks on film or bands in a festival setting that they might not roll the dice on during a typical weekend. A festival focuses energy and attention on the arts in an even more intensive way than we are able to do the other 361 days of the year, and enables us to work with other venues to spread our programming throughout the Urban Core.
We are also in the process of identifying sites for the next Sun-Ray Cinema location. Sun-Ray has made Riverside a destination for people all over the First Coast, and we’re looking to bring the experience to customers without the flexibility to drive 45 minutes to a movie theatre.
What would you like to see in the arts and cultural community in Jacksonville?
Reflecting on what you want to see in your city is important, and having a strategic plan is great, but there is something to be said for just keeping on keeping on. Continued and sustained energy, building sweat-equity, and persistent effort beats navel gazing any day.
Does your organization partner with other organization(s)?
We do! We especially love working with the St John’s Riverkeeper. It’s great to build connections for people like us who are passionate both about ecological issues and filmmaking. They were also our charity of choice when we competed in our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza-Off, an event that has led us to partner with both Moon River Pizza and Five Star Pizza, competing slice for slice with the proceeds of the TMNT screening going to a great cause.
What is a program offered by your organization that you’d like to highlight? Additionally, what is an organization that you think more people need to know about?
Sun-Ray wants to level the playing field for access to film for young people in poverty, or with less than stable home situations. We support programs like Cathedral Arts Project and Children’s Home Society with free movie tickets, tours of the theatre, and an opportunity to ask questions about careers in film and film exhibition. We’ve also enjoyed a partnership with Duval County Public Schools’ Parent Academy.
Long Road Projects is an Artist Residency program that is a new partnership for us. They brought in Lala Abaddon for a lecture that we found both engaging and inspiring. We would definitely not have known about Lala’s work without Stevie and Aaron’s program.
How do you stay up to date with the art and cultural happenings both nationally and in Jacksonville?
How can others get involved with your organization?
We make it really easy! We’re open every day for matinees and evening screenings; just come in, buy a ticket, and immerse yourself in a movie.