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Seattle's Grand Illusion Cinema, indie film buff favorite, faces uncertain future following $2.3 million sale

The tiny Grand Illusion Cinema — or at least, the building it occupies in the University District — has sold to a developer for just over $2 million dollars.

The theater’s manager said it will probably be torn down in a few years.

We went to a recent screening to see why the place has become so important to film fans and filmmakers.


he Grand Illusion Theater has just 68 seats in a retrofitted dental office above a computer repair shop. It’s been a go-to destination for weird and wonderful films since 1970.

Mikiech Nichols is a volunteer projectionist there. He also wrote, directed, and starred in his own indie comedy film called "Mountainside" about a filmmaker with writer’s block.

In one scene, the main character tells a woman at a party about his efforts to write a schlocky science fiction horror movie.

“Unfortunately, it’s really hard to write, because I don’t know the first thing about 1. science, 2. the future, or 3. werewolf women from outer space,” he says.

“That’s your title right there,” she responds.

The film is somewhat autobiographical, and Nichols’ character in the film is also a film projectionist. Naturally, the real Nichols filmed a scene in the Grand Illusion Cinema where he works.

When sitting in the audience at Grand Illusion, I was watching a fictional audience sitting in the same theater —it was a very meta moment. And like me, they were watching a film about making a film.

After the film, Nichols — the real one — came down the aisle to talk with the audience.

“Man, this is a dream come true," he said, facing the seats full of friends, actors who were in his film, and strangers. "I mean, you saw the movie. We filmed in here. The entire time we were making it, I was just hoping that I’d be able to play it here. I mean, I’m a volunteer, but I don’t book the movies. So the fact that I was able to make that happen and get three nights, and...I didn’t rent the space, they just booked the movie — that is so cool.”

caption: Mikiech Nichols plays a film projectionist in the locally-filmed movie Mountainside
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1 of 3 Mikiech Nichols plays a film projectionist in the locally-filmed movie Mountainside
Mikiech Nichols / Mountainside

He said he’s sad the theater will have to move. But he said the feelings people have for this place will ensure that it finds a new home, somewhere else.

“I’m in love with this theater. And I think, most of the projectionists here, at the very least — and there are a lot of them have been here for a very long time — I think feel very similarly.”

The future of theaters in the University District has been up in the air lately. In the 1990s, there were five movie theaters in this neighborhood, many of them showing indie films. When the Grand Illusion leaves, only two theaters will remain.

The original Metro theater is now an 21-and-over venue owned by AMC that serves dinner and drinks during films.

The other one is the Varsity, just steps from the U District light rail station. When University Way finally gets an upzone, the land beneath that the Varsity will become like gold, and will probably be developed just like the Grand Illusion.

caption: Kate Barr at Scarecrow Video on Roosevelt Way in Seattle's University District
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Kate Barr at Scarecrow Video on Roosevelt Way in Seattle's University District
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

Kate Barr is the executive director of Scarecrow Video, a nonprofit library of videos just down the street. It's another place loved by local film buffs. Barr also volunteers at the Grand Illusion, and sits on its board.

“The filmmaker that you spoke with, where would he be able to exhibit his movie, if it weren’t for small cinemas, and especially ones like the Grand Illusion?” she asked. Because it’s volunteer-run, the Grand Illusion can show indie films that don’t generate a lot of money.

Barr said nonprofit institutions that lose their space need help surviving while they search for a new location.

Scarecrow could face the same future, too, she added. Its current lease only goes through 2024.

“My dream, would be if we could find a large enough space in which Scarecrow could exist, and also right next to it would be the Grand Illusion," she said. "And we would have a mega-film-center there. But I don’t know…it’s a pretty big pipe dream.”

Back at the Grand Illusion, Mikiech Nichols reminded us that the Grand Illusion is still here for now.

“Tell your friends!" he told the audience as everyone left. "And come back to the Grand Illusion.”

You can catch Mikiech Nichols' romantic comedy "Mountainside" at the Ark Lodge Cinema in Columbia City this weekend (Oct. 13 to 15, 2023).

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