Packing the House

Boston’s independent theaters succeed in the midst of the digital-analog debate

Tianxing Ma

As online streaming services grow and digital projection supersedes film strips, local independent theaters continue to thrive.

“Sure I’ve heard of the Brattle Theatre!” Steve A. Buschbach ’16 says. “Where is it again?”

His response was a typical one. Most Harvard students, it seems, are aware of the Brattle Theatre, having passed it en route to Café Algiers or American Apparel or contemplated taking a date there. But of the nearly dozen students I approached, only one had actually patronized the tiny cinema. Preoccupied with extracurriculars, relationships, and spring classes that are quickly exiting the honeymoon phase, the average Harvard student, it seems, has little time to ponder the state of his neighborhood movie theater.

The Brattle is not the only one of its kind. While the number of independent movie theaters in the United States has declined over the years, the Boston area boasts an unusually high concentration of non-chain cinemas. Four such independent cinemas are located within five miles of Cambridge: the Coolidge Corner Theatre, located in Brookline; the Somerville Theatre; the Harvard Film Archive; and, of course, the Brattle. Each of these institutions has a rich and decades-long history, and the success these theaters are enjoying in spite of an onslaught of 21st-century technology suggests that the history behind them will continue to accrue.

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REELS STILL SPINNING

It might be expected that the ledgers of local, independent theaters would offer bleak accounts of declining viewership and sinking incomes. But the Cambridge-area independents offer a glorious affront to current trends. Each is comfortably in the black.

Ned R. Hinkle has been creative director for the Brattle for twelve years and has been working for the theatre since 1996. His connection to the theater goes back to his high school days, when he was a frequent visitor to the movie house. His account of the Brattle’s financial history since it became a not-for-profit theatre is encouraging. “[The Brattle Film Foundation] took over in March of 2001, then September 11 happened. Corporate money dried up overnight; audiences retreated. But we’ve been able to grow the audience over the years,” he says. “We’ve had three straight years of audience growth.” This is especially impressive given recent patterns for the film industry in general. “While the movies make tons of money, it’s because they keep raising ticket prices. Really, what’s happening is the number of people who go to see movies in movie theaters is declining,” Hinkle says.

The Harvard Film Archive has also enjoyed viewership stability. According to Brittany B. Gravely, who studied film at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and has served as publicist for the archive for a little over two years, the archive won’t be in financial trouble anytime soon. “It seems like we have a fairly steady flow of patrons,” she says. “We still have sold-out shows pretty frequently.”

The theaters in Harvard Square are not the only ones that have remained solvent over the years. According to employees at both the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and the Somerville Theatre, audience sizes have remained healthy. “As a whole [viewership] has increased tremendously,” Ian M. Judge, director of operations at the Somerville, says. “We [recently] pushed through to become a first-run movie theatre…. Since then, our attendance has grown.”

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