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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New leadership at Ely theater

Theater board hires Jacob White as the organization’s first executive director

Catie Clark
Posted 3/20/24

ELY- It’s been nearly four years since Ely’s Historic State Theater reopened its doors for the first time. And it set another milestone this past week when the board of directors that …

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New leadership at Ely theater

Theater board hires Jacob White as the organization’s first executive director


ELY- It’s been nearly four years since Ely’s Historic State Theater reopened its doors for the first time. And it set another milestone this past week when the board of directors that oversees the nonprofit theater hired Jacob White as its first executive director.
White, a filmmaker himself, comes with an impressive track record and longstanding ties to the Ely area. He has worked in the film industry in Minnesota, mostly in northeastern Minnesota since moving here from New York City in 2018, but is probably best known in the Ely area as the founder and director of the remarkably successful Ely Film Festival.
White joined the nonprofit theater’s board of directors last spring but stepped down in November when they began discussions with him about becoming the theater’s first executive director.
“After four years, the board wanted someone running the nonprofit who could step back and look at the big picture of where the theater should be going and how it can best serve the community,” White told the Timberjay.
Ties to Ely
White’s ties to Ely’s Historic State Theater and to his career as a filmmaking professional both date back to 2010, when he made his first trip to the Ely area.
White grew up in a small town in western Tennessee and, like so many before him, first came to Ely on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters through the Boy Scouts Northern Tier High Adventure camp.
“I have this memory of my first time I came to Ely,” White related, “of driving up the hill in a shuttle from Minneapolis with a bunch of Boy Scouts and seeing the marquee. Then, coming back for the next four summers that I worked at Northern Tier, I always thought it’d be so cool to see a movie at the State Theater, to see that place reopen.”
White’s experience at Northern Tier not only inspired his appreciation of the wilderness, it was a key to setting him on his path to becoming a filmmaker. “I was thinking I’d go to a state university and get a degree in civil engineering. But one of my counselors at Northern Tier convinced me to follow my aspirations to do something different from the norm, saying, ‘If you shoot for the moon, you just might land in the stars.’”

Filmmaking and the State Theater
His counselor’s advice led White to apply to filmmaking schools around the country and was accepted at New York University (NYU), one of the leading filmmaking schools in the country. As a college student, White worked at Northern Tier every summer from 2011-14.
After graduating from NYU in 2015, White worked in the film industry in New York but knew he wanted to be back in Ely. So, White packed up and made the move six years ago, and hasn’t looked back.
“I started my own business in 2018 and worked a variety of film jobs around the area,” White said. But he never lost sight of the State Theater and once he arrived permanently in Ely he looked for ways to be more involved in the project.
He eventually pitched the film festival concept to the board of directors in 2022, which led to the first two Ely Film Festivals in February 2023 and 2024. The success of the inaugural film festival led to White’s joining the board of directors last year.
“When they started talking seriously about hiring me as the first executive director, that’s when I stepped down in November.”
Future plans
“The first thing people should know is that the price and concessions have gone up. Tickets have been $5 since the theater reopened,” White said. “We’ve never raised prices but costs have caught up with us.” Tickets for movies are now $7.
By comparison, movies in Duluth or the Virginia area are $1-3 more expensive, not including the time and the cost of the drive. The national average for a movie ticket is $11 according to the New York Times, although tickets in the Twin Cities typically range from $15-19.
For now, the programming at the theater won’t change. Movies and feature-length animation will continue, as will the UFC live streaming mixed martial arts programming.
“We’ll be keeping the UFC fights,” White said. “Those have been drawing a good audience.”
As for movies, White plans to evaluate the sales records of past films to see what movies attract the best attendance. “I’ll be doing an internal audit of the last few years so we can make informed decisions about what sorts of movies will be showing in the future.”
Part of that audit will look at timing because movie distribution companies impose restrictions when a movie is new, often preventing any other movie from being shown on the same screen. “What I’d like to know is whether people will drive down to Duluth to see a movie when it opens or if they will wait to see it for less money in Ely four weeks later,” he said.
White also wants to expand the use of the theater for more than just movies. “We can do plays, musicals, and concerts. I’d like to have more community events every one to two months.” The theater is already moving in that direction. “We just a got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board for $35,000 for a local concert series,” White said. “I want to team up with other arts organizations in the Ely area for this.
“We also received a $9,000 grant from the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota for working with area youth in a meaningful way to introduce them to film.”
White has experience working with young people already. He’s taught filmmaking classes at Vermilion Country School in Tower as well as other locations. “That’s another way we can reach out to the local community,” he said.