Tim Massett has had his hits and misses when it comes to picking movies.
Showing comedian Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” earlier this year? Quite a boon for business.
Back-to-back choices of “Steve Jobs” and “The Peanuts Movie” in recent weeks? Ugh.
“Those were four weeks of not-so-good business,” he said dryly.
Yet, good choices or bad choices, they’re Massett’s to make. He and his wife, Shana David-Massett, have earned the right after scraping together everything they could to start Sun-Ray Cinema in the old theater within the heart of Five Points.
They don’t like to use the term “dream” when referring to how they started the business in 2011. That’s cheesy, a cliché used as a film crutch. They prefer the terms “career goal” and having “single-minded” focus.
Besides, dreaming is for sleeping. And what they do is far from that.
“I have the opportunity to work my tail off with my partner in this crazy building,” said David-Massett.
Now they’re preparing for what’s expected to be a more hectic week. Not that they’re complaining.
It’s exactly what they want to do.
Tim Massett grew up in Northeast Florida, liking movies, spending time hanging out at the video store down the street. He graduated from Middleburg High School and found himself heading to the Bay area in his early 20s.
Even though he liked movies, Massett never thought about owning his own theater until he went to the West Coast and looked around in amazement.
Camera Cinemas in San Jose, repertory theaters everywhere and a thriving underground scene gave him the bug. He wanted to own a theater that provided a wider variety for people.
He was advised against it.
It was the mid-‘90s, before DVDs became popular, but people weren’t as frequently going to movies. Soon enough, he ended up heading to Austin, Texas, with his then-partner for an opportunity for her.
It ended up one for him, too. He met Tim and Karrie League, who were trying to open what would become the Alamo Drafthouse in 1997. Massett tended bar, helped program, came up with signature events — whatever was needed, really.
The venue has a strict etiquette policy for moviegoers. No talking, no cellphones and the like. It was a place to see a show new and old, get a freshly prepared meal and enjoy craft beers and cocktails. The concept has expanded to 10 states and two dozen locations.
Massett returned to Jacksonville in 2001 to take care of his ill father, but some of those concepts are ingrained in Sun-Ray Cinema today.
He lived in a warehouse in Brooklyn before Brooklyn became the burgeoning Downtown hub it is today.
He kept a large collection of 16-millimeter films — 25,000 or so he estimates — libraries across the country simply were throwing away. He redistributed them to companies and managed the San Marco Theatre while becoming involved in the rebooted Jacksonville Film Festival.
He also opened his own venue, Subterranean Cinema, a place where 40 or so people could watch films that weren’t mainstream.
“The Pit,” said a smiling David-Massett, referring to the venue’s nickname.
She moved to Jacksonville after graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2003. An artist residency at LaVilla School of the Arts brought her to town with three other friends — none of whom stayed longer than a year-and-a-half.
She couldn’t drive, though. She grew up in New York and never learned. However, San Marco Theatre was four blocks away and she always had wanted to work at a venue like that in college. It was behind the cash register where she met Massett.
The two decided their goal was to open a theater.
An opportunity to help build an establishment came — in Duluth, Minn. The two headed north and eloped in Winnipeg along the way in 2008.
Raising money for dream
Massett was hired to put together a two-screen theater from scratch in a town that had 80,000 people and one of the largest chain theaters blocks away.
The struggle was real, but so was the experience gained.
David-Massett was looking through websites that advertised theater rentals when she found one with a familiar name. The 5 Points Theater was up for rent back in Jacksonville.
It was a familiar place and a chance.
It needed financing, though. At minimum about $100,000 to move in and do needed renovations. Massett had $10,000 in savings. An acquaintance loaned them another $10,000. A crowdfunding campaign brought in more than $27,000. And David-Massett secured a couple of small business loans through a Utah credit union.
They did it.
They came back to Jacksonville, moved into the theater space and Massett got to work. Fabric was needed to cover distracting and acoustically unpleasant bare white walls. Risers had to be built to combat the flatness of the floor. A larger screen was needed.
Piece by piece it started coming together and they opened Dec. 9, 2011, with showings of “Melanchola” and — they almost laugh in unison when they remember — “Human Centipede 2.”
“Oh, it was a disaster,” said Massett, but not referring to the films.
Instead, he was critical of the projection. It didn’t look very good — “super janky” as he describes it, but likely nothing typical viewers would notice.
The business has since continually improved. Along the way they needed an $80,000 loan to purchase a digital projector once 35-millimeter phased out in the past couple of years. They still have the projectors to show film, too.
They have 13 employees, mostly part-time. Staffing is the most difficult part of the job, both emphatically say.
It’s an environment they’ve found has been tailor-made for emergency room nurses — they have two on staff.
The setup provides a distinct challenge. It’s like a restaurant except everyone is seated and orders at the same time, but all the work has to be done in silence. It’s the experience they’re trying to bring back.
“We want people to get excited about going to the movies again,” said David-Massett. “It’s lost appeal … the magic about it.”
Business has steadily increased and they hope to pursue a second location at the Beaches. More people are noticing the Five Points venue, too, and will be able to even more next month.
That’s when a 25-foot “blade” sign is slated to be installed outside on the marquee, orange and green neon possibly visible from Interstate 95.
This week shouldn’t be a problem attracting people, though. For Massett, it was a no-brainer decision on the film that has coincided with their fourth anniversary. It’ll certainly fare better than “The Peanuts Movie.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens Thursday and both shows are sold out.
To create even more of an atmosphere, the two are attempting to reconstruct the franchise’s Mos Eisley Cantina in their parking lot for fans.
It’s all part of the experience they want to offer — something different. That’s been the goal all along.