When I meet James Parrish, Terry Rea, and Shane Brown at Bijou Film Center, a small historic building at the very edge of the Broad Street Arts District, they first crack a joke, then immediately offer me a beer. We sit in a circle of folding chairs in the high-ceilinged main hall, a plainly adorned room capable of hosting 100-person screenings. They are in preparation of their inaugural First Friday open house and the last minute rush is upon them. “We’ve got a lot to take care of, but I’m not even nervous about it,” Shane tells me, “I’m excited.”
For James and Terry, the Bijou has been a dream many years in the making. They first bonded over a shared love of independent cinema, James having co-founded the James River Film Society in 1999 and Terry having managed the Biograph Movie Theater during Richmond’s revival cinema boom. After collaborating on a few fundraising events for those organizations, the two got to scheming. “We’d debate and talk and drink beer,” James said. “It was not work, it was fun. In between talk about baseball and everything else, we got to this way of working that was very fluid and improvisational. What we established during that process was that we enjoyed working together.”
There was one question they kept coming back to—could Richmond, a town well known for its arts scene but lacking a real niche for cinephiles, support an independent art house theater, let alone a fully realized film center? They decided that it was time to put their big ideas to the test. Through a partnership with the Byrd Theatre, the two hosted a series of cinema events, starting with a screening of the anniversary restoration of A Hard Day’s Night. “It was ours to screw up,” Terry joked. “If we screwed it up, then we had no business even thinking about doing the Bijou.” However, they were more than successful, nearly selling out the nine-hundred seat auditorium. They followed with screenings of Finding Vivian Maier, The Third Man, and Entertainment, each event catering to a different subset of film-buffs. As Shane explained, “We hit all the different corners, and all the different corners showed up.” James continued, “We’d tested all the elements that we thought programmatically would be part of the Bijou theatrically. The old and the new, the light and the arty, the edgy documentary. A lot of different aspects of what we would do got played in those four films.” This support goes beyond the screenings, too, as evidenced by their membership campaign which currently has over 400 individual donors.
“It’s not like going to a big five-hundred seat theater where credits roll and everyone rushes to get out. No, you stick around and you talk about it. You discuss, you argue if you want to.”
After a year of film screenings, James and Terry decided it was time to invest in a venue of their own. Along the way, they found their own “third man,” Shane, a film projectionist and cinema historian. Together, the trio secured a location that could serve as headquarters for their big ideas. The Bijou will be more than just a place to watch movies, but also a place to learn about the history of cinema and host discussions with like-minded enthusiasts. James spoke to the multi-faceted movie-house community that they hope to cultivate, “We don’t want to just run a movie theater. We want to be around people who love movies, but also people who inspire us to make movies.” Shane added, “It’s not just a place to show movies. Almost as important as the movie itself is the dialogue that happens afterwards.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “It’s not like going to a big five-hundred seat theater where credits roll and everyone rushes to get out. No, you stick around and you talk about it. You discuss, you argue if you want to.”
As Terry took a last sip of beer, he fixed on me with a serious gaze and said, “We want be more than just a theater, we want be something that’s aware of history and shaping history. We want the Bijou to be something that makes Richmond a better town.” He chuckled and concluded, “An attractive nuisance, you could call it, but we have this place where if you want to come and talk about movies, it’s here.”
The Bijou Film Center (304 East Broad Street) will have its opening weekend on Friday, September 2. Learn more about becoming a member at bijoufilmcenter.org.