Lightbox Film Center finds new home at UArts

Philly’s only year-round art cinema is forced to move out of International House. It was snapped up by the University of the Arts.

The Lightbox Film Center. (Courtesy of Lightbox Film Center)

The Lightbox Film Center. (Courtesy of Lightbox Film Center)

At the beginning of next year, the Lightbox Film Center at the International House Philadelphia will become part of the University of the Arts.

For 40 years, under different names, Lightbox has presented classic, foreign, and art movies at International House. It is the city’s only year-round art house cinema.

However, International House is in the process of selling its 14-story building at the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, including its 379 beds and 350-seat screening auditorium.

Lightbox had to find a new home by the end of the year.

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“It’s one of the longest-running art house film exhibition programs. I would hate to see it disappear. I think a lot of people in the city would hate to see it disappear,” said Jesse Pires, the curator of Lightbox for 16 years. His involvement with Lightbox goes back more than 30 years.

“My parents used to come here. I’ve been part of it almost from the beginning,” he said.

The University of the Arts will hire Pires and move his operation to the old Gershman Y building on South Broad Street, which UArts owns. It is the former home of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.

Lightbox will present film programs under its own name and will be expected to collaborate across UArts artistic disciplines, something Pires is more than happy to do.

“I think the move is fantastic,” he said. “I’ve always envisioned this film program to be part of a university or a museum, so this is a perfect fit.”

The timing is serendipitous: at the same time Lightbox is seeking a new home, UArts is expanding its film program and is planning to build a new screening room. The original plans were to build a 100-seat room in the Gershman Y building, but with the acquisition of Lightbox the architects are going back to the drawing board to double its size.

“Since we have a film program that continues to grow and we have plans to build a new screening room, it made real sense to think about how to incorporate their brilliant curating into our program for students and also into our public programming,” said UArts president David Yager. “It was pretty straightforward.”

Yager used to work with film in his own artistic practice, and later ran a film program when he was Dean of the Arts Division at UC Santa Cruz. He stressed the importance of exposing art students to films that are properly projected inside a theater space.

“Students are used to streaming everything on small screens,” he said. “There’s a difference.”

Lightbox also gives UArts an opportunity to continue offering a rich art cinema experience to the public.

“I wanted to make sure it maintained itself in Philadelphia,” said Yager. “My hope is it will grow on Broad Street.”

Yager said he has a $1.5 million gift from the Hamilton Family Foundation to build out a new cinema space for Lightbox, adding that he still needs to raise another $2 million.

As for the International House building, it went on the market earlier this year and attracted “significant interest,” according to CEO Josh Sevin. He is working on closing a deal.

International House is re-thinking its role at the University of Pennsylvania. The organization constructed its building on Chestnut Street a half-century ago primarily as a residential hub and support services for the university’s foreign students.

While supporting international students is still at the core of the organization, offering them housing is not.

For one thing, the housing market in and around University City has exploded.

“There is such a huge growth in housing and so much more support for international students, in that context, we had to look at how we could make our best impact,” said Sevin. “We had to ask: Does it really make sense for a small nonprofit to compete in this housing game?”

The Lightbox Film Center is International House’s signature and most popular art program. As such its future is of particular interest to Sevin. He wanted to make sure it would land in a new place where it could thrive, and believes he found that in UArts.

“There’s a lot of talk in the nonprofit world broadly about mergers and program transfers that might make better outcomes,” he said. “We’re pleased we were able to find a path here that gives Lightbox it’s best path forward and makes the most sense for IHP as we undergo our broader evolution.”

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