Never in its 11-year history has YES Cinema attracted such large crowds as it has during the past year.

It’s not that the marquee is shining any brighter. But the theater, which is operated by the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center, has had some recent upgrades that have pushed the film-going experience to new heights.

“I don’t want to say ‘explosion,’ but 2015 was a big shift,” said Diane Doup, community outreach coordinator for the not-for-profit group that runs the theater. “It was a coming-of-age for YES Cinema.”

To understand how far YES Cinema has come, it requires a trip down memory lane.

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When Key Cinemas opened in downtown Columbus in 2003, the owner — who also ran a theater on the southside of Indianapolis — focused on showing independent films.

“He was what you’d call a true independent film guy,” said Randy Allman, executive director for the neighborhood family center. “He didn’t want to show anything else.”

But the strictly indie film menu, the speakers hanging from chains and the strung-together operation failed to draw crowds.

Key Cinemas went bust within six months after opening, and the space went dormant.

Thinking outside the box

Allman struck upon the idea of running Key Cinemas as a way to raise funds for the community organization. It was also a way to give some community members work experience.He approached the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller Foundation about taking over the space adjacent to Sears, located in what had been the downtown shopping mall.Key Cinemas, it was decided, would be owned and operated by the neighborhood center as a social entrepreneurship, raising funds for the center, Doup said.

“When they took over, I was delighted,” said Sherry Stark, former Heritage Fund executive director and current Arts District Coalition chairwoman.

“When (former head of Disney) Michael Eisner came to Columbus to visit, one of his comments was that the community should have encouraged the multiplex theater to come downtown. Having movie theaters is really important to downtown development; it’s a way to attract people,” she said.

They would call the theater YES Cinema for two reasons:

Yes is the most positive word in the English language, Doup said.

Using that name meant not having to buy new letters for the marquee, leaving an unused K from Key Cinemas.

“Theoretically, it should say ‘Yes’ Cinemas,” Alllman said.

But they didn’t have an extra S.

YES Cinema opened on Christmas Day 2004. Although the staff was trained to run the theater, there were early missteps.

One film was shown upside down at first.

“It was around the time that film ‘Sideways’ was out,” Doup said. “Randy said, in a staff meeting, if someone calls and asks if we’re showing the film ‘Sideways,’ say, ‘Perhaps.’”

During March Madness, management ordered a copy of “Hoosiers.” The advance copy was in Spanish.

Worse, toilets overflowed, electricity went out mid-show and equipment continued to age, but YES Cinema eked out enough to subsist, while tapping into grants and receiving other help.

When huge studios, including Disney, announced they would only offer films in digital format, grants from the Carl Marshall and Mildred Almen Reeves Foundation and the Heritage Fund helped upgrade the theater’s outdated equipment. That included installation of Dolby Digital sound.

First-run success

YES Cinema continued to offer independent films, many of them first-run.“Attendance wasn’t great,” said cinema manager Ron Adams, who has been at YES for nine years. “We were showing independent arty-type movies. There seems to be a limited audience for those kinds of movies — a dedicated, interested and loyal audience, but those kinds of films don’t draw crowds like big blockbuster films.”Most of ticket sales go back to studios in fees.

And cinema management found that independent film viewers didn’t sink much cash into concessions.

“Theaters thrive on concessions — it’s called the ‘Raisinet economy,’” Allman said. “That’s how you make your money.”

Aside from ticket sales during a run about five years ago of “The King’s Speech,” and despite the annual YES Fest film festival, the theater had never brought in huge crowds.

It was time for a change.

“Showing all kinds of different films is part of the mission,” Adams said.

So last spring, Allman found Indiana Booking Services, an aggressive film-booking agent that indeed gave YES patrons more variety.

There was no regulation that said big-budget blockbusters could run only in a multiplex. Indiana Booking Services delivered “Jurassic World,” which brought in 2,883 popcorn-munching, soda-drinking patrons. That was the start of things to come.

The animated hit “Minions” generated 4,617 ticket sales after its July release. And in mid-December, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” brought in 3,632 patrons — released to YES on the same schedule it was being shown across the nation — not weeks or months later.

YES Cinema was on the board.

“We’re not getting rich,” Allman said. “But we’re able to take care of ourselves.”

Management fixed the theater’s marquee and upgraded the air conditioning.

Last fall, YES Cinema was granted a beer and wine license.

The investments already have paid for themselves, Doup said.

For Adams, the days and nights are a little fuller. As he gazes out over the larger crowds that drive exponentially higher concession sales, he is busier, yes.

“It makes me feel great,” he said.

But no more so than the ticket-buying public, eager to see what’s next.

Coming attractions

Beginning today and running through Thursday at YES Cinema: “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2016: Documentaries”

Beginning Friday: “Deadpool”

For more information, including times, visit yescinema.org

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Jenny Elig is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at jelig@therepublic.com or 812-379-5671.