As a screenwriter, Mike France got James Bond and Marvel Comics superheroes out of what seemed like inescapable jams.
As a businessman, France must now do the same with Beach Theatre, a St. Pete Beach landmark since 1940.
France, 49, bought the place lock, stock and projectors for $850,000 in 2007, after writing credits on such Hollywood hits as GoldenEye, Hulk and Fantastic Four. His decision was largely sentimental; the St. Petersburg native grew up watching movies at the Beach. France never expected to make a fortune and hasn't.
Now the economic pinch is a death grip, and there's only one way to survive: having the Beach Theatre officially classified by the Internal Revenue Service as a 501(c) nonprofit organization.
"It's kind of a legal maze, and I'm just at the beginning," France said in a recent interview.
"Basically, we either have to go nonprofit or we just have to go."
If approved, the reclassification would reduce the theater's tax burden and allow fundraising, donations, volunteerism and sponsorships that for-profit businesses can't accept. For years France has turned down such offers from patrons thinking the Beach was already a nonprofit organization.
"As a nonprofit, not only would we be able to take that (assistance) but we could encourage it," France said.
Those benefits still may not be enough to prevent Beach Theatre from shuttering its doors.
"It makes me sick to my stomach," France said, "to think of driving down the street and seeing the place boarded up, not seeing anything on the marquee for a new film.
"After 71 years, I don't want to be the guy who turns out the lights on the Beach Theatre."
France is following the lead of independent theaters nationwide that specialize in offbeat films — including Tampa Theatre and Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota— in attaining nonprofit status. Not all endangered theaters have been saved, but enough to make France "very optimistic" that it can work for the Beach.
Tampa Theatre programming and marketing director Tara Schroeder expressed surprise that Beach Theatre doesn't already have nonprofit status. Schroeder said in addition to financial advantages, there's also a communal benefit.
"Being nonprofit gives you a link to your community, gives people an entrance to your organization to contribute," Schroeder said. "It's more of a community treasure and resource, rather than a guy who owns a movie theater as a business."
The decision to file for nonprofit status comes after France trimmed the Beach budget to its barest essentials. He claims to have never taken a salary, and the free Saturday morning kids shows he personally financed have ended. Film distributors regularly tell France his ticket prices are too low — $5 for matinees and $7 at night— but he knows his customers, largely retirees.
Even so, France estimates ticket sales have declined nearly one-third from last year's totals.
"I've been cutting every expense I can think of," he said. "Every time I write a check to pay a bill, basically I have to call the bank to see if it's covered."
And now we're heading into the summer months when, as France joked: "the only time someone comes inside is if they're sunburned." The theater's peak months are from October to March when Oscar contenders make the rounds. The nonprofit process will be completed by then. If the Beach's request is approved, France will use that prime time to determine if the transition makes a difference.
France is seeking advice from tax attorneys and St. Pete Beach officials, and scouring websites for information about independent, single-screen theaters like the Beach. "Either they're being run as a nonprofit or they're closing," France said.
"There are tons of 'Boo-hoo, we're losing our theater' stories out there, and I'm hoping you don't end up writing one."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.