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MOXIE MOVEMENT: Moxie Cinema's board of directors, led by President Stephanie Stenger, right, is seeking a new executive director for the nonprofit art house theater as current leader Mike Stevens plans to depart this spring.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
MOXIE MOVEMENT: Moxie Cinema's board of directors, led by President Stephanie Stenger, right, is seeking a new executive director for the nonprofit art house theater as current leader Mike Stevens plans to depart this spring.

Moxie Cinema’s longtime leader plans exit by April

Move comes amid ticket sales uptick and theater membership dip

Posted online

The final credits are set to roll this spring on Mike Stevens’s time as executive director of downtown mainstay Moxie Cinema.

Stevens has led the cinema best known for showing independent films since 2010 – the same year nonprofit Downtown Springfield Community Cinema Inc. was formed to purchase the theater from founders Dan and Nicole Chilton. The couple opened the Moxie in 2005.

After nearly 14 years at the helm, Stevens said he’s “ready for something new, like a new project, new challenge.” Plans call for a late April exit.

“I’m going to miss being Moxie Mike, being the guy who’s kind of recognized for doing this, and you get some respect for that,” he said. “That’s going to be hard to let go, but I feel like I’ve been in it almost too long. Somebody else should get a shot at being Moxie TBD.”

The Moxie’s volunteer board of directors is seeking a new leader for the movie theater at 305 S. Campbell Ave., Ste. 101. The application period for first consideration of the position concluded Jan. 31, but board president Stephanie Stenger said there is no hard deadline for finding a replacement for Stevens. She declined to disclose the number of applicants.

“If he’s leaving the end of April, we hope to have the spot filled before that because we want Mike to be able to train,” she said.

Stevens said giving the board several months’ notice should provide adequate time to find and train the next director.

“Whether it’s operations, whether it’s finances, I’m just here to make sure that whoever I hand the baton to is kind of ready,” he said, adding the Chiltons helped him learn the job when he was hired in 2010.

Timed exit
Stevens said leaving the Moxie has been on his mind for a few years.

“I’d been thinking about it for two or three years, but really the pandemic was no time to do that,” he said. “More recently, it just seemed like we were in a place where the ticket sales were starting to see some improvement, and we were on a good trajectory, and membership was doing well.

“I felt like, OK, if not now, then I’m going to retire here, which that wouldn’t have been a bad gig.”

Declining to disclose 2023 revenue, Stevens said ticket sales last year increased 18% from the year prior. The number of tickets sold have ranged 19,000-35,000 a year, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“We are not where we were pre-pandemic, but we are in the best spot we’ve been since the pandemic,” he said, noting tickets sold are about 65% where they were in 2019. “The numbers are going in the right direction for ticket sales, and that’s heartening.”

Financial help for the Moxie arrived amid the pandemic in various forms. The theater received $27,500 from the Paycheck Protection Program, a $10,000 U.S. Small Business Administration emergency loan, and a $5,000 relief and recovery grant through the Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc., according to past reporting. But Stevens said the biggest aid was a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant from the SBA for roughly $90,000.

“That was a huge sigh of relief,” he said.

Rusty Worley, executive director of the Downtown Springfield Association, said the Moxie has been a part of the downtown community since the organization’s inception. The Campbell Avenue location is its third after opening on Walnut Street and moving for a few years to Wilhoit Plaza.

“We love having it down here, and Mike has been a great ambassador for film and for the Moxie,” Worley said, noting Stevens has helped broaden the theater’s membership base. “We’ll certainly miss Mike, and he brought a lot of great energy and perspective. But I feel like they’ll be prepared to take this next chapter in their story.”

Organizational backbone
Officials say annual memberships to the Moxie, which range $50 for a student rate to $1,000 for the director level, experienced a roughly 13% dip in 2023, finishing at 439 members. Boosting the membership total is a priority this year, Stevens said, noting members and other donors helped the Moxie raise $50,000 in 2023 toward the purchase of over 100 replacement seats for its two auditoriums. Stevens attributes some of last year’s membership dip to people donating for the seats rather than purchasing memberships.

Memberships have been a lifeblood for the nonprofit for years, he said, adding numbers have fluctuated the last seven years between 420 and 510.

“It’s the reason why we are open still. Even before the pandemic, they were the reason why the Moxie was able to survive,” Stevens said. “It’s not a cliche to say they’re the backbone of the organization.”

Stenger said the Moxie has goals to enrich, educate and inspire the community, in part through programming that includes Moxie Mornings, an hourlong session that introduces children ages 2-6 to film. The program is free due to support from the Missouri Arts Council and local organizations such as the Springfield-Greene County Library District and MaMa Jean’s Natural Food Market LLC, according to the theater’s website.

Stenger said with the rise of technology innovation, such as streaming services challenging the status quo in Hollywood for years, movie theaters need to adapt to changing consumer habits.

“This is definitely a business where you have to be ready to change what you’re doing because we don’t know what it’s going to look like 10 years from now,” she said. “We plan to be here, and I think that we will with the support that we have from our members, no matter what version of Moxie it is.”

The movie theater industry has a lot of challenges, Stevens said, including the perception that there are too many theater screens in the U.S. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, an industry trade organization, the screen count dropped in 2022 to just over 39,000 – a nearly 5% reduction since 2020.

Downtown lost the Regal College Station cinema a year ago, leaving Springfield with three movie theaters. The 54,000-square-foot downtown theater at 415 W. Market St. has sat vacant since. Worley said he knows the building’s owner, Tillman Redevelopment LLC, is still seeking a buyer or tenant. Company officials didn’t return messages seeking comment by press time.

“That would be the first preference to have it be a movie theater use there and have it be a part of the entertainment district that College Station was always envisioned to be,” Worley said.

Stevens said the Regal’s closure didn’t result in a notable increase in business at the Moxie.

“We’re a small, nimble organization that has a substantial other area of revenue in membership,” Stevens said. “So, I’m very optimistic that we can weather all those changes. We’ve done a great job so far.

“There always is going to be an appetite for people gathering in dark spaces, watching movies,” he said. “What that looks like, whether it’s a combination of concerts and movies or old movies and first-run movies, I’m not sure. Something that’s different than going home and watching something on a couch.”

After the Moxie, up next for Stevens is helping his wife Kate Baird with New Moon Studio Space LLC, the venture they opened last year in the former headquarters of the Junior League of Springfield, Missouri Inc. on East Bennett Street. New Moon offers studio space for local artists. Beyond that, Stevens said he’s “pretty open-ended” to his future career prospects, adding he’s looking for projects that will be compelling to him.

“I couldn’t define compelling to you in a simple way, unfortunately,” he said. “If I could, I’d already be there.”

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