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John Santikos' Legacy Is More Than Innovative Movie Theaters

Other than the screen it's pitch black in Santikos' newest theater, The Casa Blanca.

"Crank it up, Art!" says David Holmes CEO of Santikos Industries. Booming bass is followed by the eponymous Dolby sound moniker, which is followed by the very real sound of a thunderstorm.  Holmes is inspecting the theater a few weeks before its launch.

"The speaker array behind that screen  would make the Rolling Stones take notice," he says.

Holmes is talking up the 130,000 square-feet complex that also features 16 bowling lanes. The sound in the theater is loud but precise. The theater chain partnered with Klipsch speakers. 

"These  are the biggest screens in Texas," Holmes says.

Despite being the 10th in the Santikos chain, Holmes says it is one of the first in world equipped with laser projectors in every theater. The next all-laser multiplex is set to open in China according to projector-maker Barco.

"Laser digital is three times brighter than traditional bulb lighting."

Innovations like these are  typical of late owner John Santikos who designed this theater before passing away in December of 2014. Though pushing the envelope his entire career, Santikos' death may have produced his biggest innovation.

"We are the only theater operator that is a social enterprise, so we exist solely for the benefit of the communities we serve," Holmes says.   

When John Santikos died, he left his business -- including all his theaters and several properties -- to the San Antonio Area Foundation, a nonprofit foundation that distributes grants that focus on improving the quality of life in San Antonio.

"To my knowledge since the year 2000, the only person who has given more to a community foundation is Mark Zuckerberg." ~ Jason Franklin, the WK Kellogg Community Philanthropy chair at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Rather than sell the businesses and give the money -- which is what private foundations legally have to do -- Santikos wanted the business to continue operating but with profits going directly to charity. It's called a social enterprise. Think "Newman's Own."

"Every time someone buys a movie ticket, every time someone visits the shopping center, they in essence are putting money back into San Antonio," says Dennis Noll, the president of the San Antonio Area Foundation. They manage the Santikos Legacy Gift. Over the course of four years Noll helped John Santikos structure the fund.

"There are charities that say 1 percent of our profits are going, 10 percent are going, that is not this.This is every dime that is left over that we don't need for operations," Noll says.

Last December, the Area Foundation gave $6.5 million in grants. That will nearly double this year. Eventually, Santikos Industries says they will be giving the Area Foundation $400,000 a week or $20 million a year, and eventually $30 million annually. All for grants to the San Antonio community.

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For a city like San Antonio, this is a big deal. The $619 million gift represents the biggest in the history of the city and -- according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy -- the largest individual gift of 2015 in the entire United States.

"It is very rare," says Jason Franklin, the WK Kellogg Community Philanthropy chair at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Franklin says that the gift is nearly 10 percent of all the money that all 250 U.S. community foundations raised in 2014. It tripled the size of the San Antonio Area Foundation's assets, and its capacity to give. He calls the gift transformative.

"There's really an incredible opportunity for a city the size of San Antonio and the foundation like the San Antonio Area Foundation to jumpstart the next chapter of the city's future," he says.

How transformative? Well, according to charity navigator, historically San Antonio doesn't rank in the Top 30 cities for giving. And while we don't have complete data on how that ranking will be impacted, we do know if the full gift had been available in 2013, 1 in 5 dollars given to charity would have been Santikos dollars. That's according to the Foundation Center.

San Antonio 2013

Chicago 2013

Dallas 2013

For those 123 community organizations that received grants in December, the changes are already taking place:

"We are looking at a real great example of urban decay," Paula Owen president of The Southwest School of Art describes the property directly across from their main campus downtown. It will be the future of the school. "

This will be largest development and it will mean that we can grow into a new identity of being a college of art."

Southwest School of Art and Craft

Building on this site will help accommodate the many future students they expect from starting their BFA program. Santikos is going to help them fill this building with artists and students through a $1.5 million dollar grant that pays for scholarships, defraying costs for art materials for two years, and more.

"For us we are transforming ourselves at this particular time so that gift has been instrumental in keeping our momentum moving in that direction," she says.

So as long as the city keeps purchasing tickets to the latest spandex-clad superhero film or period drama, area nonprofits can count on money from the Santikos fund to start to think bigger.

Disclosure: The San Antonio Area Foundation is a financial supporter of Texas Public Radio, which also received a $30,000 grant from the Santikos fund in 2015.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive