West Philly’s International House is closing. What happens to the renowned theater inside?

After 40 years, Lightbox Film Center is looking for a new home.

lighboxfilmcenter-01
Courtesy Lighbox Film Center
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After four decades at the International House in West Philly, the Lightbox Film Center is searching for a new home.

This is not an emergency situation. That’s one thing the folks running the 300-seat theater and event space want to make clear. “We’re really not sending up an SOS,” said I-House President Josh Sevin. “We’re not in a rush.”

In fact, Lightbox has a full slate of programming scheduled for the next several months.

Nationally acclaimed BlackStar Film Festival will hold many of its screenings there in August, just as it has for the past seven summers. Through the end of 2019, the space will host dozens of showings of arthouse classics and independent films, as well as several live performances in collaboration with partner organizations.

After December, though? Unknown.

A 40-year history

Since 1979, the renowned cinema hub — which was the birthplace of the Philadelphia Film Festival — has been the signature arts program of International House.

Last month, however, International House announced a plan to sell its building and property at 3701 Chestnut St. and chart a new direction for the nonprofit institution, which was founded to combat housing discrimination against international students.

While I-House itself may have outgrown its mission, its film program is more popular than ever.

“Our membership is at an all-time high,” said Lightbox managing director Sarah Christy, noting the success of a recent rebrand and marketing strategy. “We get a lot of feedback that it’s the best performance space in the city.”

Along with rental income, individual member donations and $10-per-person admission fees supplement Lightbox’s main source of funding, which is grants and contributions from outside foundations.

That highlights a potentially positive side to the pending separation: It’s not always easy to convince patrons to write a check made out to a housing and community program — when all they want to do is support the arts.

“There are some restrictions in that we are not a pure arts organization,” Christy said. “It’s a funding challenge sometimes.”

Lightbox program director Sarah Christy

Lightbox program director Sarah Christy

Courtesy Lighbox Film Center

More than one silver lining

The cinema org first found a home at the International House back in the 70s, when it was known as The Neighborhood Film/Video Project.

What’s now a tricked-out theater was just a big open space when it moved in, with rows of folding chairs that were set up and broken down each night, according to former staffer Gretjen Clausing.

Clausing, now executive director of PhillyCAM, interned at the film center as a student and worked there for a decade. After a major renovation in the 1980s to install proper seating, lighting and curtains, it became a hub for the independent filmmaking community, she said.

“That was such a moment in filmmaking,” Clausing said. “Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch and others were making waves. People would gather at I-House to hear how to do it themselves, and also see great work and be inspired.”

Over the years, the theater’s fortunes waxed and waned along with its parent organization.

“When residential occupancy was high and there was an operating surplus,” said Sevin, who has been president and CEO of I-House just under a year, “then the ability to be a substantial funder for an arts program was something we could easily and happily do.” But as that surplus turned into a substantial deficit, supporting Lightbox became less feasible, he said.

While substantial renovations have continued — a state-of-the-art digital projector was added in 2012 to the standard 35mm and vintage 16mm film projection setups; a new floor was installed last year — the building itself is not in prime condition.

Sevin sees that as another silver lining to the upcoming separation. “Every once in a while you build something and it’s fantastic,” he said, “and it gets to a point where it’s time for it to grow somewhere else.”

Seeking a common vision

Where will that somewhere else be? The physical space matters less than ideological alignment, Sevin and Christy agreed.

“We’ve found there are a lot of potential venues of a size that would be commensurate with our space needs that are hungry for audience and revenue, and that’s great,” Sevin said. “The limiting factor is not venue — it’s that the [new parent] organization believes in the mission.”

As talks with potential acquirers continue, Christy and her eight-person team are busy putting together what they say is a show-stopper of a finale. Though details haven’t yet been announced, it’s a combination film program and art exhibition funded by Pew comprising screenings at the West Philly theater and gallery shows in Center City.

“We’re really committed to doing our best to find that great next home,” Sevin said, “But we’re going out with a bang.”

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