by Carolyn Bick
Tommy Swenson and Casey Moore were obsessed with movies as kids. Growing up in Seattle’s University District in the 1990s only served to further that obsession.
“There were, like, five or six different movie theatres, and Scarecrow Video, and Cinema Books,” Swenson said. “I was really plunged into this movies incubator, where I had access to see so much and got such an education, just by watching a lot of movies.”
Swenson and Moore are co-founders and co-owners of The Beacon Cinema, a small, 48-seat film space on Rainier Avenue South near South Genesee Street. The theater officially opened its doors on July 19 with free week of films that included such diverse titles as Duelle, Buddha’s Palm, and Magic Mike XXL.
They started the cinema almost by accident: Moore said he had just been looking for a new office space for his film marketing firm. He didn’t realize the office space listed on Craigslist came with an adjoining yoga studio.
He saw the space, with tall ceilings and wondered if they could get 35 or 40 seats in. So he called Swenson. He recalled with a laugh the conversation with Swenson when he asked, “Hey, dude, do you want to come down and take a look at this, and just talk it over with me? Want to just sit cross-legged and drink some beers in a yoga studio?”
The pair weren’t always close, though. Despite the fact that they both ran in the same cinephile circles, they didn’t formally meet until 2012 at SXSW. Moore was traveling with his band, and Swenson was there for work.
Part of Moore’s love for movies stems from frequent visits to Scarecrow Video as a teenager. Swenson started working there when he turned 18, his first job in the movie business. Moore even met his now-wife at a screening he and Swenson attended.
That was 2017. Swenson had been working as the film programmer for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain’s five different locations around Austin, while Moore had just moved back from New York City to Seattle a couple years before. Moore had worked for The Criterion Collection — a company that specializes in re-releasing films on Blu-Ray in their purist forms with a wealth of features and interviews — as its marketing director for six years. He decided to start his own film marketing firm based out of Seattle and Los Angeles called High Council.
Both of them have solid marketing and business backgrounds, but getting the cinema up and running was still difficult. Neither of them is made of money, and it took $80,000 to start the theatre. Most of that money came from Moore refinancing his own mortgage and High Council underwriting. Moore’s parents fronted some of the cash, too, in exchange for a percentage of the company. Moore’s own father even helped his son literally built the theatre with their own hands.
“It was really satisfying, and my dad and I had a really fun father-son bonding experience doing it, but it was tough,” Moore said. “Nights and weekends for seven months — those moments were difficult, but, ultimately, super, super-rewarding to have people open the doors and tell us how much they like it.”
While Swenson said the pair wants to help turn Columbia City into a movies neighborhood, he also said they don’t want to overshadow The Ark Lodge, an area mainstay. They love the Ark, he said, and don’t want to step on any toes. The Beacon is meant to complement the Ark, not destroy it. Fortunately, because their lives have been saturated with film, there’s plenty on offer. Out of the trove of cinema treasures, the Beacon plucks the old and strange, rather than new releases or first-runs, like the Ark does.
“In wanting to run a movie theatre, it’s wanting to share the passion I have for movies with other people, and sort of bringing them into these opportunities to go into different worlds that help us, you know, re-see the past, and sort of bring forward long-lost films and lost ideas that have existed, and sort of look forward towards new ways of seeing our world through this amazing medium,” Swenson said.
Ultimately, what excites the pair at the end of the day is the potential for them to pay it forward, Moore said. If even one young person finds inspiration or discovers a love for cinema through their theatre, their job is done.
“I remember what that was like, especially as a teenager, when you’re heart is so open, and … you just welcome everything in. It’s like the floodgates are totally, totally open,” Moore said. “If we can have a handful of those moments for people, that’s what I am most excited about.”