Now Playing: Amherst Cinema makes moviegoing an experience


  • Marquee on the front of the Amherst Cinema building on Amity Street in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dan Biegner, center, and Claire Crews, right, work the box office at Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Cinema employees Dan Biegner, left, and Claire Crews, center, talk to Carol M. Johnson, who is the executive director of Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Cinema Executive Director Carol Johnson in one of the cinema’s theaters. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Cinema Executive Director Carol M. Johnson, right, talks to a patron at the theater. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Claire Crews fills a bag with popcorn at Amherst Cinema. Wine, beer and hard cider are also available for purchase at the theater. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carol M. Johnson, behind counter from left, Malik Ford and Dan Biegner work the box office at Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Wine, beer and hard cider are available for purchase at Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst Cinema Executive Director Carol Johnson, left, talks with longtime members Barry Steeves and Rosemary Schmidt, of Northampton, at Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Promotional buttons rest in a box in the lobby of Amherst Cinema, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carol Johnson, right, who is the executive director of Amherst Cinema, talks to Randy and Karin Wilburn, of Belchertown, who were among the first to become members of the cinema in November of 2006. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Promotional caps are available for purchase at Amherst Cinema. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dan Biegner, who is the technical manager at Amherst Cinema, holds a hard drive that contains a movie used on the cinema's digital projectors. They still have a film projector for movies that are not available digitally. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dan Biegner, who is the technical manager at Amherst Cinema, walks past one of the cinema’s digital projectors. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Bulletin
Thursday, February 22, 2018

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Amherst Cinema had a problem. And for the most part, it was a very good problem to have: Several of that day’s film screenings had sold out. Would-be moviegoers who had trekked in the freezing cold to see the buzziest Oscar-nominated movies of the season —  “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lady Bird” and “I, Tonya” — found themselves in the crowded lobby amid “sold out” signs and apologetic theater employees. “I haven’t been to a movie theater in six years, and this happens,” said one disgruntled woman before leaving.

“We absolutely hate turning people away!” says Carol M. Johnson, the theater’s executive director. “This can happen on busy afternoons and evenings at any time of year, though — which is why we recommend getting tickets in advance.” 

In the age of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, it’s rare to find an independent film theater that’s actually thriving. But Amherst Cinema makes every movie-going experience just that — an experience. It’s not just the cushy blue seats, the seasonal beer and wine selection (offered after 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays and noon on Sundays) or the smell of freshly popped popcorn.

It’s the interactive programming that really sets the theater apart from other venues, including the multiplex. One of the theater’s most successful events is “Science on Screen,” a nationwide program supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Film Foundation that aims to bridge, via film, the gap between scientific thought and art. Amherst Cinema is one of 36 art-house theaters across the country to receive the grant for the program.

This past Monday, Amherst Cinema presented another installment of the “Science on Screen” series, this one featuring the film, “Hidden Figures,” which last year was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name and starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, “Hidden Figures” is the story of the previously unknown black, female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the 1960s — and helped put man on the moon. For this event, Johnson tapped as a speaker Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of the 2011 book “Black Feminist Archaeology,” exploring the roots of black feminist thought. 

“They reached out to me and asked if I was interested in talking about the significance of black women in science,” Battle-Baptiste recently said. “The conversation about ‘Hidden Figures’ is: Why are they hidden? Men and women of color who were involved in a number of inventions and interested in math, science, and things we consider STEM now are not what we are conditioned to see.” The film allows viewers an opportunity for “looking at ourselves and seeing the science in all of us,” she added.  

Amherst Cinema has been hosting the “Science on Screen” program for six years now. Past speakers have discussed polar climates (a topic paired with the true story of “South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition”), alien invasion (paired with the 1970s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) astronomy (paired with the documentary “Nostalgia for the Light”) and time travel and the laws of physics (paired with “Groundhog Day”). The “Groundhog Day” event was especially well-attended, Johnson noted, as it was hosted by a popular professor of physics and astronomy at Amherst College, Kannan Jagannathan, who’s affectionately known as “Jagu.”

Following “Hidden Figures,” the theater plans to host its second installment of the series for this season by showing “Chinatown,” directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson, on March 27. Anita Milman, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst, studies environmental governance and water resources — making her an apt choice to comment on the water-supply controversy that plays out in the 1974 film. “Chinatown” may not be the obvious choice for a science film, but Johnson says, “We always choose a film people want to see. We know from talking to other theaters across the country that people still want to see this film.”

“Science on Screen” is just one of many ongoing programs hosted by Amherst Cinema. “See-Hear-Feel-Film” is an educational arts program for local third graders that aims to inspire creative writing and critical thinking with a film-based curriculum. Around 1,500 kids from schools around the Valley participate annually; 70% of those children come from underserved public schools, and all of the students receive scholarships to participate.

Programs like these ensure a give-and-take relationship between the cinema and the community that is vital to the theater’s survival. With 50% of each ticket sold returning to the film’s distributor, local support is essentially the major force that keeps Amherst Cinema up and running. Membership options (ranging from $60-300 annually, with special rates for students and senior citizens) come in two varieties: Gold and Silver. Both offer deals — which vary according to the annual rate — such as free popcorn and soda, invitations to special events, and free admission on the moviegoer’s birthday.

“Memberships provide us the cushion we need to do our work. Without membership, we would not be here,” says Johnson. Two-thirds of their revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions, she adds: “We get roughly one-third of our contribution from membership.”

It takes a town

With the Oscars only weeks away, there’s no shortage of dramas playing on the theater’s four screens. But the art house has a dramatic history of its own. When what is now Amherst Cinema first started showing films in 1926 (the building dates back to 1879, when it was used as a livery), it was under the name “Amherst Theater.” Back then, the theater showed films and even hosted some small stage performances that could make use of a modest stage and orchestra pit. 

It wasn’t until 1955 that the theater was renamed Amherst Cinema, after selling to Samuel Goldstein, according to a detailed history that can be found at amherstcinema.org. Over the decades, neglect and a lack of basic upkeep led the building into decline, even though it stayed open into the 1990s. Toward the end, loyal moviegoers arrived at the theater to watch movies with their own blankets and comforters to stay warm. Years of problems, including safety and health-code violations, forced the theater to close its doors in 1999, after showing the indie film “200 Cigarettes.”

But that wasn’t the end — like any good drama, this one has a twist. In 2000, local movie and art lovers banded together to form a nonprofit, Amherst Cinema Arts Center, Inc., and raise funds (approximately $3 million) for the new cinema, and in 2006, the organization broke ground for the theater, which opened that November.

Cut to 12 years later: “We show about 275 programs a year in about 20 different languages. And usually, the commercial theaters don’t want to show films with subtitles. But we do,” says Johnson. “We choose films because of their excellence.” In 2017 about 250 of the 275 were films. Other programming includes live footage of plays by Britain’s National Theatre and ballet from Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

“We pay attention to critics, but they don’t drive our decisions,” Johnson says. “We rely on our own experts to choose films.” Those experts include Johnson, herself, and Connie White of Balcony Booking, which provides film-buying services for theaters and festivals around the country.

In addition to a staff of 20, the cinema has a board of directors who help out with everything from fundraising to event-planning. The list reads as something of a who’s who: It includes community members representing a variety of fields and interests, from culinary to college education, city government to health care. 

Patrons often come to the theater with their own suggestions. “People locally are really knowledgeable about films,” Johnson says. “If someone in the community approaches me [about a film], I will consider it.”

With several Academy Award-nominated films currently playing, including “Lady Bird” (which isn’t showing anywhere else within 40 miles), seats are selling out fast. A season like this one is instrumental in the theater’s ability to reach new audiences, but the post-Oscars lineup is already looking good. Early March, “just after the awards season has made its final splash, is often a time when a rich selection of new film gems becomes available to us,” says Johnson. “This year looks to be an especially rewarding spring crop.”

Salman Hameed, an Amherst resident and associate professor of integrated science and humanities in the School of Cognitive Science at Hampshire College, is a regular at the theater as well as a member of the cinema’s board of directors and a past speaker for “Science on Screen” — he was the expert on hand to discuss both “Nostalgia for the Light” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He praises the theater’s high-quality screens, sound, seating and programming as moviegoing perks, but what he appreciates most of all is the experience of viewing a given film with fellow movie lovers.

“It may be a sunny day, but when you go into the theater, there may be 10 to 20 people sitting. You know those people are there because they love films,” said Hameed. “It’s a special community, a like-minded experience.” 

Johnson says that keeping audiences coming back also depends on staying up to date with technology. And such changes aren’t cheap.

Back in 2012, Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton shut down due to space limitations and mounting costs of new technology. The theater was originally set to close in 2007; however, pushback from the community and support from Amherst Cinema helped reopen the theater in 2008 and keep it open for another four years. “I still have fond memories of Pleasant Street Theater — you knew you were going to see movies with people who love movies,” said Hameed. 

Still, despite attempts to save something so beloved, Pleasant Street Theater didn’t survive. Other small theaters have found the nonprofit model to be an appealing one. “It’s a very vibrant and doable model for people who love film,” Johnson says. “We are free to choose the films — no one tells us what to show. But it also means that we don’t have an owner or institution with deep pockets behind us.”

Hameed contributes his time and money so that he can continue to enjoy films in the theater that’s walking distance from his home. “I didn’t move here because of that — but it was a plus,” he says. 

“Before coming to this area, I lived in New Mexico, and there was only one theater and one screen. We would have to wait for movies to come over there for  months,” Hameed adds. “Here, I don’t think people realize ho w lucky we are to have four screens of independent films, all the time, playing multiple shows.”

That is — if they aren’t sold out.