Daryn Zongrone has staked her future on a moment. The moment after a movie’s credits roll, the moment when people turn to each other, moved or shocked or confused, and talk about what they just watched. Zongrone believes this moment is important—so important she’s building a community on it.
She calls it the Film House, a local film movement on its way to becoming the Upstate’s first small independent movie theater. But to Zongrone, the theater is not the end goal. Connection is. Discussion is. Culture is. “It’s one thing to watch Citizen Kane,” she says. “It’s another to talk about what makes Citizen Kane so good.” Inspired by spirited discussions in her film study classes, the USC Upstate psychology major dreamed of opening her own theater someday. Shortly after graduation, she wrote a business plan.
That was last year. Zongrone is 23 and she’s unfazed by the road ahead. “As soon as I started, it was overnight success,” she says. Like any good Millennial entrepreneur, her first step was to create a Facebook page for the Film House. Within two days, the page had gained more than 500 likes—a clear sign that Zongrone had tapped into a deep community yearning. By November 2013, she was laying the groundwork in the back room of Coffee Underground. There, with her film series director Adam Renkovish, Zongrone is hosting the Film House’s first screenings. Every week, they offer screenings that range from cult classics to foreign films to arthouse favorites. But this is one movie showing where the credits are not followed by the shuffling of feet and gathering of bags. After each movie, Renkovish and MJ Slide, the Film House’s marketing director, lead lively audience discussions. Zongrone envisions these discussions as a cornerstone for the theater, where she plans to encourage post-screening conversation and host lecture series with filmmakers and film professors.
Many of her goals hinge on opening the theater, but the road is not easy. Others have tried to walk it, and none have succeeded. Yet. Zongrone worked with a small business mentor from SCORE to develop a sound business plan that details a three-screen, 300-seat theater in downtown Greenville, with a pizzeria and a bar area to serve beer and wine. Now, her mission is to fund the million-dollar project: first, through crowdfunding, then by attracting private investors. She’s emphatic about her ambition: “I’m not interested in building an empire. I’m interested in bringing movies to the people who want to see them.”
Instinctively, Zongrone understands the power and pull of the big screen—even today, in a modern world fragmented by our tiny, handheld screens. “It’s about creating the atmosphere that people love. You need the velvet ropes, you need the marquee,” she explains. Her plan—the beer, the pizza, the classic films, the first-run indies, the 1930s-inspired glamour—is designed to draw many different people to the same place. It’s there in the dark, shoulder to shoulder, sharing the experience, that we understand and enjoy movies more. Together.