Inside Cinema St. Louis' Plans for the Hi-Pointe Theatre

The formerly nomadic nonprofit intends to safeguard the beloved theater's future

Jul 4, 2023 at 6:20 am
click to enlarge Cinema St. Louis has found a home at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. |
Braden McMakin
Cinema St. Louis has found a home at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. |

A beloved St. Louis movie theater and an equally treasured St. Louis nonprofit recently realized they were made for each other — and then tied the knot.

For the past 22 years, Cinema St. Louis, the non-profit behind the St. Louis International Film Festival, had lived nomadically. George and Georgia James, the Hi-Pointe Theatre's legacy owners, inherited the theater in the '70s, but now in their own 70s, were looking for new hands to pass the historic theater to.

But thanks to an impromptu discussion between the two parties, the foundation for a forever home for the nonprofit and a new caretaker for the old theater were first laid.

At this point, Bree Maniscalco, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, was just over six months into her tenure. In a conversation, Sharon Tucci, the wife of the late J. Kim Tucci — board chairman of Cinema St. Louis, Pasta House co-founder and all-around St. Louis titan — told Maniscalco that Tucci's dream was for Cinema St. Louis to find permanent residence.

After those two conversations, Maniscalco realized it was a matter of "being at the right place at the right time," and she initiated Cinema St. Louis' acquisition of the Hi-Pointe Theatre.

"As a non-profit, we have to move very quickly to get our board open to the idea," Maniscalco says. "We signed the dotted line January 15, 2023, and started showing films January 17, 2023 — we wasted no time."

Maniscalco notes that the move was about more than just finding an administrative space for Cinema St. Louis, it was also about making a home for its programming — and making sure that the Hi-Pointe continued on.

In the Hi-Pointe's 101 years of operation, films have always been paramount. Differing from most early 20th-century movie theaters that staged vaudeville acts and plays in addition to movies, the Hi-Pointe was built solely for cinema. Maniscalco promises that the Hi-Pointe will maintain its dedication to film.

"Our goal is to show diverse programming that piques everyone's interest at an affordable price," Maniscalco says. "The best way to do that is to be a second-run theater." A second-run theater typically shows films after they have finished their primary release cycle. This allows theaters to dodge lengthy studio contracts that decree how often and for how long theaters must screen the film. Without first-run contracts dominating its programming calendar, the theater is able to prioritize a variety of differing programming.

click to enlarge The Hi-Pointe has been serving St. Louis for more than 100 years.
Braden McMakin
The Hi-Pointe has been serving St. Louis for more than 100 years.

While the Hi-Pointe will no longer show blockbusters as soon as they release, it will shift focus to promoting historic, independent and community cinema. This summer, the Hi-Pointe mounted two film series: Golden Anniversaries and the recently completed Wes-Fest. The latter highlighted the work of Wes Anderson in anticipation of his newest film, Asteroid City, which debuted June 23. The former revisits classic films celebrating 50 years since their release and is ongoing.

Outside of tribute programming, Cinema St. Louis wants to invite local filmmakers to screen their creations at the historic Hi-Pointe.

"St. Louis has a vibrant filmmaking community. We really want to show people that filmmaking as an art form and as a career can be successful and impactful," Maniscalco says.

For Cinema St. Louis, all roads lead to community. It hopes to expand its educational programs, namely the youth filmmaking camps, hosted at the St. Louis and Kirkwood Public Libraries, as well as the free student screenings and its growing repertoire of MasterClasses. Additionally, the Hi-Pointe has begun a staff increase. While it's working on filling roles in the box office and concession stand, Cinema St. Louis is also looking to diversify its executive staff.

"Like most non-profits, we wear multiple hats to get the job done," Maniscalco says. She hopes an increase in staff will allow Cinema St. Louis to grow in tandem with St. Louis' film scene.

Gratitude colors all of Maniscalco's dialogue about the Hi-Pointe. Recognizing the theater's integral role as one of St. Louis's few independent arthouse cinemas, she says "[Cinema St. Louis] is really honored and humbled to be passed this torch to continue the tradition."

In a statement shortly after the theater's acquisition, the James family wrote, "We know that Cinema St. Louis is the perfect sequel to our story. They share the same passion and vision, and we are confident that they will be able to carry on our family's legacy for the next 100 years."

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