How does the scrappy independent compete with huge corporations? In an era of bigger, louder, and sexier, how does subtlety survive? What does this have to do with movies?
The Coolidge Corner Theater is emblematic of this struggle, one that characterizes not just theaters and films, but all businesses, whether it be restaurants, music, stores, or television. The most popular consumer items tend to be processed, blown out, mass-produced. How then, to explain the popularity of a theater with just four screens, all featuring films that you won’t find in the top of the box office grosses?
The Coolidge is an independent, non-profit theater that exclusively screens independent, foreign, documentary, and art house films. You won’t find the superhero epics that boast mind-numbing profits, or the cookie cutter action movies that Hollywood seems to churn out as if from an assembly line. The theater’s mission is “to entertain, inform, and engage – building a vital community through film culture.” This means alternative entertainment, the likes of which film buffs salivate over, and the everyday moviegoer tends to largely ignore. The theater has been operating as a non-profit since 1988, serving 200,000 annually thanks to numerous grants and donors.
Without its throwback marquee sign, the Coolidge Corner Theater would be downright inconspicuous at its Harvard Avenue location in Brookline, Massachusetts. Buried within the myriad shops and restaurants of the fabled Coolidge Corner district, the theater has no front entrance, but rather a ticket booth and entrance in a barren alley off to the side. Faded posters adorn its exterior. Inside, undersized living-room style theaters supplement the ornate, gorgeous main theater, which holds an audience of up to 440. Film memorabilia and remnants of film history’s yesteryear decorate the walls. The theater’s amateurish charm seems of a piece with its unique, artfully selected programming.
Though first-run films generate most of the theater’s revenue, their non-profit status means they are not slave to the dollar and can select more challenging fare. For example, the NC-17-rated Blue is the Warmest Color, a three-hour French film featuring explicit lesbian sex scenes, just wrapped up several weeks at the Coolidge.
Jesse Hassinger, impressively bearded and sporadically tattooed, is the theater’s Program Manager, in charge of choosing which films the Coolidge screens each week.
“It’s mostly about being able to bring a wide variety of independent art house film to the community, both foreign and domestic,” he says.
The programming focuses on diversity, catering to all members of the community, from young to old, with a wide range of tastes. This ethos is embodied in the theater’s many screening series: Artists for Alzheimer’s is a screening and discussion designed specifically for those with memory loss. Off the Couch is moderated by the Boston Psychoanalytic Society. The Ballet in Cinema series features ballet performances from around the world. The most popular series, @fter Midnite, is home to the quirky horror flicks and comedies with cult followings.
“I think that we’re probably the best first-run movie house in the greater Boston area, because we do care so much about our community,” says Hassinger.
The films themselves are not the only things distinguishing the theater from its larger competitors. Audiences are not subjected to endless advertisements and previews prior to their movie – instead, there are a few selected trailers for the theater’s upcoming programming. The Coolidge’s concessions stand sports locally-made food products sold at a fraction of the cost most theaters would charge. Local craft brews are on tap, alongside a selection of wines and liquors.
The relationships with local businesses and focus on a fair, enjoyable audience experience is all in the name of giving back to the community, one that has saved the theater from ruin time and again over the years. The Coolidge’s 80-year history is marked by financial woes and near-demolitions, with groups rising up time and again to preserve the theater.
In the mainstream press, there has been much distress and hand wringing over the studios’ transition toward producing more and more huge blockbusters over smaller, more intimate films. It’s increasingly harder to get a film like the ones the Coolidge exhibits made, let alone make it a success, or so the belief goes. If the trend continues, it could spell disaster for the Coolidge, yet the staff remains undaunted.
“They’ve pulled back on the amount of films being released, but that’s across the board,” says Hassinger. “The independent productions may be fewer and far between, but I feel that the quality is not waning. Some of the best films that have come out in the past few years have been amazing independent films.”
Andrew Thompson, the theater’s Operations Director, offers a similar sentiment.
“I don’t think things have changed that much. People are constantly pumping out garbage and people are always making good stuff. Every year, every month is different,” he says.
But what of the proliferation of online streaming services such as the behemoth Netflix, which has supposedly been siphoning theater audiences at an ever-increasing rate? The theater must be worried about luring audiences out to enjoy the same films they can enjoy in the comfort of their own homes, right? Wrong.
“Part of the joy of seeing films is seeing them with a group of people,” says Hassinger. “The comedy is funnier, the scares are scarier… you can’t replicate it at home.”
When it seems increasingly harder to profit from, the Coolidge manages to remain successful year after year by championing arts and creativity. There’s a desire among the movie-going public for alternative fare, something that makes them think, something that thrills in a different way than explosions and car chases.
“This is where film lives,” says Hassinger. “Theaters that show the big blockbusters are where Hollywood has an avenue to put out what they produce, but the true devotees of cinema who love film flock to the independent theaters that can give them a more personalized experience across the board.”
The theater is in the process of improving upon the experience even more, looking into plans for a $4.5 million dollar expansion and renovation project. A new, 180-seat theater would be added, in addition to an enlarged lobby and improved concessions and bathroom facilities. It’s an ambitious project that would be heavily reliant on fundraising, yet given the theater’s irreplaceable presence in the community, looks within reach over the next few years.
Though the Coolidge will never turn the giant profits of the AMC and Regal Cinemas, their commitment to community and ability to operate in the black as a non-profit is an inspiring sentiment. The theater is a breath of fresh air in an age of stale movies, a throwback to a time when the best films didn’t always have the biggest budget and a trip to the theater was affordable and unique. As much as it’s a relic of the past, it also represents a hopeful future. There’s still an audience that wants to learn, to be challenged. There’s still an audience that’s comfortable without billboard-sized screens and deafening sound. There’s still an audience that just wants a good story.