Ron Keedy has been a cinephile ever since he first saw War of the Worlds in 1954. “It scared the devil out of me – I”ll never forget that as long as I live.” Growing up in Crawfordsville, he spent Saturday afternoons at the Strand Theater, engrossed in the sci-fi movies of the era that he loves to this day. Keedy got his first job at the Ben-Hur drive-in in 1965, and apart from a three-year tour of military service in Vietnam, he has devoted himself to the art of running movie theaters ever since.
Keedy took a risk when he opened Key Cinemas in 1999, on the south side of Washington Street, which he calls the city’s cultural “Mason-Dixon Line.” Though Key is just 10 minutes from downtown, Keedy constantly battles the perception that it’s located in a cultural hinterland, accessible only to those intrepid moviegoers brave enough to travel southward to his unassuming location in a strip mall off of South Keystone Avenue.
For people willing to venture off the beaten path – literally and culturally – Key Cinemas has become one of the Midwest’s best destinations for cutting-edge, independent, foreign and documentary films. Keedy takes financial risks to bring in films no other theater in Indiana would dream of showing. “They play it safe, and we play everything else,” Keedy says. His own taste runs towards documentaries, Spanish and Italian cinema, sci-fi and classic films, but he’ll take a chance on anything that looks interesting, from Akira Kurosawa’s three and a half hour masterpiece The Seven Samurai, to Gus Van Sant’s controversial new minimalist film Gerry. Surprisingly, Key’s highest-grossing film to date has been the documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
Indianapolis has been slow to respond to Key’s eclectic, often edgy programming, but Keedy has persevered, spurred on by his unwavering passion for film. “It’s been a teaching period, getting people used to where we are and what we’re doing, and it’s finally starting to pay off.” Although Keedy loves the autonomy of booking exactly what he wants, “There have been times where I didn’t know where the next penny was coming from,” he admits.
For people around the Midwest – Keedy’s patrons come from as far away as Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Fort Wayne and Cincinnati – who are tired of factory-like multiplexes and formulaic Hollywood blockbusters, Keedy offers a genuine alternative: “My philosophy is to give people the best cutting-edge films possible. That’s what I like to do. I like movies that make people think, or that show them something they’ve never seen before.”
In addition to its weekly programming, Key Cinemas hosts two film festivals each year, the Indianapolis Underground Film Festival and the Indianapolis Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the latter of which drew more than 2,000 attendees last year, raising $10,000 for Indiana Youth Group.
Keedy plans to expand the theater this summer, opening a deli next door offering a pre-movie menu of pizzas, sandwiches and coffees. If his notoriously addictive homemade caramel corn is any indicator, the deli should do well.
Despite the challenges he faces, Keedy is optimistic about the future of Key Cinemas. “I don’t know what I would do if I weren’t doing this,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s a struggle, and I feel like pulling my hair out sometimes, but I’m having fun.”