In a city famous for its bad rap, Detroit’s unemployment rate is at a roaring 50 percent and its economy is in a downturn. Yet, there are several entrepreneurs looking up, including young professionals such as owner and program director Nathan Faustyn of Burton Theater.
With a mere $6,000 and a dash of Detroit pride, four friends opened the city’s only independent foreign movie house in an abandoned elementary school auditorium on the infamous stretch of the Cass Corridor near downtown. After a poor reception of its first screening of Scarface on opening night four months ago, Burton Theater has seen few, if any, profitable nights. But, co-owner and program director Nathan Faustyn says, this adventure in entrepreneurship was not exactly about making money, per se.
The owners met with the landlord of the movie house, Joe Landy, who is also a major developer and owns a majority of the properties in the area. He’s been very passionate about fixing up the Cass Corridor, which many people, especially those people fled in the 1960s, consider the scariest neighborhood in Detroit. He’s very passionate about fixing up the area and, he says, “we’ve all lived in the Cass Corridor, so we came together as a fusion of young and old blood to fix what was wronged.”
Burton Theaters was singled out in a New York Times article as one of six businesses considered to be a leader in the downtown Detroit community. “We’ve obviously created some form of entertainment for people, as well as a center of community, but the movie industry is very different from the other sectors,” says Faustyn.
When compared to the other new start ups in the neighborhood, such as Curl Up and Dye and Good Girls Gone to Paris Crepes, Faustyn says his movie house is one of several great businesses. He is proud of how the neighborhood has gradually been transformed into a place where everyone wants to be. With a pool table and lounge, Burton Theater has contributed towards the great community vibe with its art hanging on its walls and incredibly low rates—so low, in fact, that they are just enough to cover its electricity bill. “The biggest problem for us is not to get regulars—we opened with a large following—but we’re looking for new people,” tells Faustyn, adding that there are no paid employees.
The business owners even sit outside to watch the patrons’ cars while they enjoy the movie inside. With such passion and sense of community, the movie house itself has, too, become a community hub. “But the Burton Theater has also been singled out because of the fact that we were able to hustle and put this together as young people—and because we’re loud mouthed, opinionated guys,” admits Faustyn. These four young professionals are proud to talk up their venture and their city, not just “a bunch of political posturing.” This is a story about a city in which you don’t normally hear nice things about, but that is changing quickly.
Risky venture has a defined purpose
Despite being underdeveloped, Faustyn says, the city’s reputation wasn’t viewed so much as a risk than an opportunity. Because of the community support and financial assistance that came along during the startup phase, things came together rather serendipitously. “The majority of the money for the investment strictly came from wheeling, dealing and hustling,” says Faustyn.
He and his co-owners decided it was time to call in all the favors they had. “One of the co-owners used to work on a film crew so he had a lot of projection parts. Through a limited amount of investment and crew we were able to put together a full projection system,” he says. The business model is run quite efficiently on a shoestring budget; any incoming calls to the business hotline from the website are redirected through Google to their cellphones.
The future outlook for these downtown Detroit entrepreneurs is looking more positive or, at least, they choose to be rather optimistic. Burton Theater is currently a single-screen movie house however the owners have plans to expand it to two screens. “And hopefully, in our cabaret life, we’ll be able to show concerts and live stage plays,” says Faustyn. “It’s about engraining ourselves so we become really an important part of the community and on a selfish level, spreading art that we believe in,” he says.