Amherst Cinema continues to thrive in age of Netflix
Amherst Cinema Saturday night. Purchase photo reprints »
Executive Director of the Amherst Cinema Carol Johnson and Chairman of the Board Ken Rosenthal pose for a portrait in one of the three theaters on January 4, 2013.
SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »
A group of people wait for the start of "Not Fade Away" at Amherst Cinema Saturday night. Purchase photo reprints »
A group of people exit theaters at Amherst Cinema Saturday night as others, right, wait to enter.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
Chris Powell, second from right, and William Benker, right, work the ticket counter at Amherst Cinema Saturday night.
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A group of people exit a theater after seeing "Chasing Ice" Saturday at Amherst Cinema.
JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »
Chris Powell, second from right, and William Benker, right, work the ticket counter at Amherst Cinema Saturday night. Purchase photo reprints »
While many independent movie theaters have closed in recent years, the Amherst Cinema has survived, branched out into educational programming and this year will add a fourth screen and go digital.
Twenty years ago, three Northampton theaters showed movies — and now there are none. The Amherst Cinema, for many decades a downtown destination, closed in 1999 but was reborn in 2006 as a nonprofit arts center showing movies on three screens. Despite the growth of home theaters, access to online movies and free DVDs at public libraries, the Amherst Cinema sold 102,600 tickets in 2012 and has 2,760 members who support it financially.
So how does the Amherst Cinema stay open when other movie theaters have folded? And how does it plan to successfully compete with streaming films from providers like Netflix, with Cinemark and with movie fans’ other options in the future?
“We try to achieve an enjoyable theater-going experience and a sense of community,” said Carol Johnson, the executive director. “It’s a place that engenders conversation and thought and dialogue. We’re a crossroads for the community, where people of all walks of life, ages and backgrounds can find an economical way to be entertained.”
The cinema tries to locate fims that will motivate people to leave their homes to come to downtown Amherst for an experience they share with others, said Ken Rosenthal, who chairs its board of directors. “There is still nothing like watching a movie in a dark theater with a big screen and a wonderful sound system,” he said.
More than movies
The Amherst Cinema has become more than just a place to see movies. It hosts a media education program that this year has included 1,375 third-graders, sponsors talks by filmmakers, does film retrospectives and presents theater and ballet productions. On Jan. 31, filmmaker Ken Burns will be at a special screening of his new documentary, “The Central Park Five,” with tickets available to members only.
But most of all, it is the place to see “crossover” movies that don’t make it to the mall theaters in Hadley. Sometimes, these sleeper movies become big hits, such as “Slumdog Millionaire” in 2009 and “Moonrise Kingdom” last year.
“We choose films that have a message and are well made, not just those that are going to sell a lot of tickets,” Johnson said. “These films tell a compelling story, engage the mind, and are something you want to talk about, not just pure entertainment.”
The Amherst Cinema relies on its most popular movies to maintain its financial viability. Last year, it showed 126 movies, and the five most popular ones accounted for 38 percent of the ticket revenues, Johnson said.
Another way the cinema stays afloat is its nonprofit status, which enables it to seek tax-deductible contributions and avoid commercial pressures, she said. While independent operations with just one screen have largely vanished, the cinema provides a choice of movies.
Also crucial to its success is the support of downtown property owner Barry Roberts, who guaranteed the Amherst Cinema’s original loan, built the building at cost and is providing the space for a fourth screen, Johnson said. “It wouldn’t have been economically possible without him,” she said. “He’s a very civic-minded person, and a dream to work with.”
This spring, the Amherst Cinema will open its new 25-seat Studio Theater nearby in the former M&M Links space, she said. This will enable it to keep showing films that aren’t filling the two 42-seat theaters but still have followings, such as the current “Chasing Ice” and “Searching for Sugar Man,” she said. “We can find and show more small gems,” she said.
Also this year, the Amherst Cinema will spend $175,000 on a new technology known as Digital Cinema Package or DCP, which is replacing 35-millimeter projection. The cinema has no choice but to make the conversion, because most films will be soon made with DCP, Johnson said. It will reduce the film industry’s shipping costs and enable it to preserve copyrights and prevent duplication, she said.
The cinema has an annual budget of $1.4 million, and 40 percent of its expenses are for nine full-time and 11 part-time employees, she said. Of all its ticket revenue, 45 percent goes back to distributors to pay for renting the films, she said.
Membership is crucial to the cinema because 100 percent of this money can be used to fund operations, she said. The 2,700 “silver” members, who pay $60 a year ($40 for seniors and students), get discounts on ticket prices. Most of them live in the Amherst-Northampton area, but some live as far away as Longmeadow, Leyden and Worthington, Johnson said. There are also 60 “gold” members who pay $300 a year, Johnson said.
Between memberships and gifts, the Amherst Cinema must raise about $300,000 a year.
“It’s a challenge to do that every year,” Johnson said. “People are tempted to take us for granted. If people want us to be there, they need to become members. It’s not enough to just come to the movies; our goal is to make everyone who comes to the cinema a member.”
Johnson compared membership in the Amherst Cinema to membership in WFCR radio or Channel 57 television.
“It’s not intuitive to support an independent theater in addition to the ticket price,” she said. “Most people need to be told why we need their support.”
In 2008, the Amherst Cinema took over the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton and shut it down last June. It had physical limitations that couldn’t be fixed, and if it had stayed open, it would have had to make a major investment in the DCP technology, Johnson said.
The cinema does not want to eliminate its need for fundraising by hiking ticket prices, which can be as high as $8.75 for weekend showings, she said. “We couldn’t raise them enough,” she said. “It’s never going to be possible to break even with ticket prices.”
It has found other ways to raise money. On March 10, it will host a movie trivia bee at the Academy of Music in Northampton with 24 teams competing and John Hodgman and Bill Dwight hosting. Last year, the event sold out the 350-seat theater. Tickets are $10.
The cinema has a growing list of programs that struggle to break even. The outfit often seeks sponsorships for them, Johnson said.
This March, it will show a series of animated films by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. His film “Spirited Away” was the first anime film to win an Academy Award.
In April, it will host a series on women in film. On April 6 at 2:30 p.m., director Sonali Gulati will show her film “I Am” as part of a symposium run by the Five College Women’s Studies Researh Center. On April 9 at 7:30 p.m., director Mariette Monpierre, a Smith College graduate, will be at the cinema to show her film “Elza.”
This spring, it plans to co-sponsor with the Jones Library a series of films that grew out of books, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Shining” and “The Tin Drum.” It will show three plays from Britain’s National Theatre: “The Magistrate Feb. 9 at 1 p.m., “People March 21 at 7 p.m. and April 13 at 1 p.m., and “This House” April 16 at 7 p.m. and June 1 at 1 p.m.
Last fall, it showed three films celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, four Japanese films and two jazz-related films.
Most weekday mornings, when the cinema doesn’t show movies, the largest theater is filled with third-grade children, more than half of them from Holyoke and Chicopee. They come to the cinema from their schools on field trips and learn how to actively watch movies, said Jake Meginsky, the director of education.
“We believe that teaching children to interpret images is one of the most important things of 21st-century literacy education,” he said. “Kids are exposed to so many different images every day, and they’re not often invited to talk about that experience and analyze the media.”
The days of the mom-and-pop movie theater are long gone. But the cinema has adapted to Netflix and the other realities of modern technology, and is once again a downtown destination, though it’s still dependent on the generosity of supporters.
“We create business for Netflix because people want to see a film again,” Johnson said. “We often show films people don’t know about, and they trust our film selection. You can buy DVDs online, but first you have to know about the films.”