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Packing the House

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

As online streaming services grow and digital projection supersedes film strips, local independent theaters continue to thrive.
As online streaming services grow and digital projection supersedes film strips, local independent theaters continue to thrive.
By Emma R. Adler, Crimson Staff Writer

“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.

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.”

Judge did acknowledge occasional variations in viewership from month to month, but attributed them to a single factor: “The only fluctuations are when they make terrible movies.” Denise E. Kasell, who once served as the executive director of the Hamptons International Film Festival and is now executive director of the Coolidge, also chalked up attendance dips to the popularity of the films being shown. “We rely on the film industry,” Kasell says.

EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS

It doesn’t seem that any of these local independents will truly be in jeopardy anytime soon. But in the age of AMC and Netflix (not to mention TiVo, Tivli, Hulu, and HBO Go), how are these tiny theaters continuing to thrive? By each theater’s estimation, the explanation lies in a simple truth: they offer patrons something that other mediums just don’t.

The Coolidge’s mission, as described by Kasell, is “to show the best films that we can find, to make them available to our community, to give [our patrons] comfortable seats, and to not bombard them with commercials.” In fact, films at the Coolidge are not prefaced by a single advertisement, but only by short films or trailers. Gravely cited personally and intimately designed programs as well as the large number of visiting directors who accompany their films to the Archive as lending the HFA a unique appeal.

Judge spoke of superior presentation, showmanship, and being “tough on cell phones.” He describes the Somerville as a venue which defines itself by breaking the multiplex mold. “[It’s] a down-to-earth, fun, kind of funky place,” he says.

That focus on individuality is partially made possible by independent theaters’ approach towards profit. “A national chain…really [has] to program based on how much money they think a movie’s going to make. At the Brattle, while making money is definitely something that people are concerned about, it’s not the be-all-end-all reason for playing a movie,” Hinkle says. “You really want to play a movie you feel passionate about.”

For Hinkle, that passion paired with focused, friendly customer service is key. “When your customer service policy is dictated by a corporate structure…inevitably, it feels corporate. At an independent theater, you have a more personable interaction with the people who work here,” he says. “You can come over here and talk to the person who chooses the movies, whereas at an AMC you would never be given access to that person.”

DESIGNER PROGRAM

The Coolidge’s Box Office Babies program delivers “bi-monthly, baby-friendly screenings of current features.” The Cinema in 70mm program offers screenings of classic, epic films shot on 70mm film, while the Science on Screen program (Kasell’s personal favorite) pairs documentaries and films with a scientific tilt with live lectures by scientific luminaries (the program has been such a success that the Coolidge was given a grant to help implement the program in other theaters). The @fter Midnight program provides local insomniacs with 11:59 p.m. showings of “horrifying, weird, camp, avant garde, tripped-out movies” like “Black Dynamite,” “John Dies at the End,” and “Carrie.” The list of special programs the Coolidge alone offers is formidable, and it represents another characteristic that sets independent theaters apart from an AMC.

The Somerville also boasts a varied calendar of events, but regularly ventures outside film. Erected in 1914, the theater first served as an entertainment house for vaudeville acts as well as stage shows and motion pictures. The Somerville is a for-profit theater but is family run and maintains prices comparable to those of their not-for-profit competitors. As befits the theater’s vaudeville roots, it periodically hosts live acts—bands, theater companies, and comedians have all appeared at the Somerville. The theater also serves as the locale for number of film and music festivals. This month, the Somerville will host the Boston Sci-Fi Film Marathon, and in March, the New World Klez Fest will grace its stage.

At the Brattle, breadth of programming is emphasized. It is not out of the ordinary for the theater to show “Casablanca” one day and the “All Bugs Revue” the next (in fact, this is what’s on tap this week). This reflects the theater’s commitment to remaining true to its roots. “We program based on some very essential parts that were put together by the people who originally opened the Brattle. They were trying to show films that covered every aspect of what film has to offer: highbrow, lowbrow, classic, new. [Our programming] has evolved in that we do more weird movies now: exploitation movies, B movies, cult movies,” Hinkle says. “We try to find the sweet spot, which is the best movies we can find—the most interesting movies we can find—that will also draw a decent crowd.”

PROJECTED BENEFITS

Hitting that sweet spot has recently become more difficult due to major changes in the film industry. Traditionally, all movies were printed on physical film and distributed to movie theatres in the form of film reels. This is no longer the case: slowly but surely, digital projection has overtaken film projection as the predominant means by which a movie is screened. Many distributors have stopped producing film reels, and theaters unequipped for digital projection have been faced with an ultimatum: fork over tens of thousands of dollars for a new system, or see the selection of films they are able to screen significantly reduced.

“The Brattle’s held out longer than others in terms of practically attacking this problem because we play such a wide range of movies, but we see the writing on the walls. It’s going to affect us within the next eighteen months,” Hinkle says. “This weekend we’re playing ‘The Dark Knight Rises.’ In a year and a half, it’s most likely that a film like that won’t be printed on film.”

Further complicating matters is a lack of consensus as to whether digital projection is actually better. Gravely is a staunch advocate for doing things the old-fashioned way. “It’s a real treat to see film on film,” she says. In her opinion, the softening effect of film helps create a sense of movie magic that is lost when a film is digitally projected. “You might as well watch it on a monitor,” she says.

Above all, employees at each independent cinema are determined that their theater will not be left behind. The HFA currently has no plans to install digital projectors (given the size of their existing film collection, it is not a grave necessity), but the Somerville and the Coolidge have both undergone partial conversions and are now equipped for both digital and film projection.

The Brattle is currently fixing to follow in its peers’ footsteps. Hinkle described the roughly $80,000 required to install a digital projector as an “unmanageable” amount of money for the Brattle to come up with on its own. Consequently, the theater has turned to Kickstarter, a fundraising company that provides projects in need of capital a platform for collecting pledges. As of yesterday, the campaign has collected pledges amounting to 57,533. The goal is to raise $140,000 to pay for both a digital projector and a new heating and air-conditioning system by the time the campaign concludes on February 28. Due to Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing policy, pledges will only be brought to bear if this goal is met. But Hinkle is excited about the direction of the campaign so far. “The response has been very good…. Some Twitter celebrities have gotten behind us a little bit…. We’re very optimistic about being able to reach the number,” he says.

COME TOGETHER

Hinkle is also confident about the future of moviegoing in general. He may be on the fence about digital projection; he may bear no great love for Netflix. But on the whole, his is a fountain-drink-half-full philosophy.

“I used to be a real film purist; up until about two years ago [digital projection] really rubbed me the wrong way,” he says. “But what it comes down to for me is, properly projected, whether it’s film or digital, a movie is still magical, and seeing a movie in a theater is still a transporting experience…. It’s really seeing the movie on the big screen, in an audience, that makes the impact.”

Kasell is similarly sanguine. She believes firmly that “movie magic” is alive and well. What’s more, she is confident of its ability to endure as technology progresses. “While we can stream everything in our homes, and I watch at least one movie a night at home...sitting in your living room alone or with your family is not the same as gathering with 440 people or 240 people or even 40 people,” she says. The environment created by the theater itself, Kasell suggests, is what matters.

Digital, traditional—there is no mention of the mediums of projection in these theaters’ missions, because their goals have far more to do with their atmospheres and customer relations. Kasell suggests that the relationship between theater and audience is what will maintain the appeal of independent theaters. “Everybody knows that we’re not here to take your money; everything that we do stays within the community,” she says. “What I’m really talking about is the communal experience.”

—Staff writer Emma R. Adler can be reached at emmaadler@college.harvard.edu.

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