Theater of dreams: Sacramento’s only microcinema is a movie buff’s ‘Dreamland’ 

Lauren Hess works behind the concessions counter at Dreamland Cinema. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

By Chris Narloch

Two entrepreneurs opened Dreamland Cinema in Sacramento in June of 2022, during a time when theaters across the country were struggling — and still are — to lure viewers away from their streaming services and back to the movies after pandemic lockdowns. 

Against all odds, the pair — Lauren Hess and Tish Sparks — succeeded, and they now regularly sell out many of the showings at their 26-seat microcinema in Midtown.

Microcinemas have been popular in Japan and other countries since the 1970s and are beginning to catch on in the United States, where prohibitive real-estate prices and the trend toward streaming entertainment at home make opening new large chain theaters a risky proposition nowadays.  

Hess and Sparks, who are a couple, met while the two were living in Texas, and they relocated to the River City after Hess got homesick for Sacramento, where she had been involved in the music industry earlier in her career. The women realized during COVID — as many people did — that they wanted to do something more fulfilling with their lives and careers than just make money. 

Determined to start their own business, Hess and Sparks spotted a beautiful, green Victorian house on 19th and P streets while driving around the downtown area and proceeded to persuade the lawyer who owns the building to rent them the basement below her law office.

Since the downstairs space had formerly housed Sacramento’s Thistle Dew Dessert Theatre — which offered original plays and sweet treats — it was already configured for a live audience and its small auditorium had a couple dozen vintage seats still intact.

The pair envisioned an arthouse cinema in the modest location and after repainting and refurbishing the space, Dreamland Cinema was born. The rest is herstory, with Hess and Sparks determined to succeed with our city’s first official microcinema, offering niche programming such as cult films, classics, and the type of oddball indie flicks that sometimes bypass Sacramento.

Tish Sparks (left) and Lauren Hess work in the concessions area of Dreamland Cinema. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

Hess handles hospitality and most of the front-of-house aspects of the business, while Sparks is the film buff who curates the calendar and acquires the movies they show. “From the beginning, the goal was to offer as eclectic a slate of films as possible,” said Sparks, “so that fans who show up for a classic foreign film like Pasolini’s 1968 “Teorema” might be curious and come back the next week to see a B-movie.”

Almost immediately, Dreamland Cinema attracted a loyal, repeat following of film buffs and fans of foreign cinema, queer movies, sci-fi, and horror, who regularly flock to the theater’s cozy auditorium, which resembles a private screening room or a state-of-the-art home theater.

Several of the larger, multiscreen movie theaters in Sacramento (most notably two mall theaters, at Arden Fair and Sunrise Mall) closed their doors in recent years as cinemas tried valiantly to compete with home viewing. Dreamland, on the other hand, has thrived by starting small and using social media, networking, and word of mouth to build their brand. 

One regular patron of the microcinema described Dreamland as a “hidden gem” and a “sanctuary where I can escape for a couple hours and de-stress.”  

Cécile Mouette Downs, co-founder of the Sacramento French Film Festival, was equally effusive about her experience with Sparks and Hess. “Dreamland hosted our annual kickoff party this May,” said Downs. “Lauren and Tish are wonderful to work with, and they do a great job programming the Dreamland Cinema. It’s impressive.”      

From left: Dreamland Cinema owners Tish Sparks and Lauren Hess. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

The theater has kept its overhead down since Hess and Sparks are the owners, managers, and currently the only employees at Dreamland Cinema. The pair are, however, looking to expand their business model and hire help later this year or early next year, and they will have the money to help do that after having won a contest produced by the Downtown Sacramento Foundation. 

Earlier this year, Dreamland Cinema beat out several other local individuals who entered the DSF’s Calling All Dreamers competition, a business incubator boot-camp that brings in industry professionals to mentor entrepreneurs for the chance to open a downtown storefront.  

After coming out on top, Dreamland Cinema will receive $20,000 cash and in-kind services that will allow the business to realize its full potential, as the theater has outgrown its small space thanks to so many sold-out shows. 

Hess and Sparks said they plan to keep the original location going and use it for special occasions like their own annual film festival and small and private events. On their days off, the couple has begun searching for a larger location where they can expand their concession options, showcase new releases and increase their seating capacity.

“We’re so excited to be the 2024 winners of Calling All Dreamers,” Hess said. “We’re looking forward to having a more spacious lobby where we can host movie trivia nights, bring in guest filmmakers, have pre-show DJ sets, art shows and more.”

This story was funded by the City of Sacramento’s Arts and Creative Economy Journalism Grant to Solving Sacramento. Following our journalism code of ethics and protocols, the city had no editorial influence over this story and no city official reviewed this story before it was published. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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