Editorial: Amherst Cinema a Valley treasure

  • Dan Biegner, center, and Claire Crews, right, work the box office at Amherst Cinema, on Feb. 9. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Friday, March 02, 2018

On Sept. 23, cinephiles across the globe will celebrate an unofficial holiday that most people have never heard of: Art House Theater Day.

Now in its third year, the event was started by the Art House Convergence, an organization of independent movie theaters, to celebrate the cultural role that brick-and-mortar art house theaters play in their communities.

The countdown already has begun (check out arthouseconvergence.org for details), but why wait more than 200 days to celebrate your local art house? Amherst Cinema should be commended today, and every day, for bringing thoughtful, quality programming to our area.

One way to judge the quality of a region is by the quality of its independent film theater — if it even has one. Amherst Cinema Arts Center, at 28 Amity St., is a treasured landmark in the town that gave the theater its namesake; but since the shuttering of Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton in 2012, Amherst Cinema has become the top destination for movie lovers, Valley-wide, looking to engage with both film and community.

As Jordan Allen reported in her Feb. 16 Hampshire Life magazine cover story, “Now Playing: Amherst Cinema makes moviegoing an experience,” the theater has succeeded in making the act of seeing a film in public a truly interactive experience by curating top-tier programs that are culturally relevant.

This Sunday, millions will tune into the 90th Academy Awards, live from the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The event may be 3,000 miles and three time zones away, but thanks to Amherst Cinema, movie lovers in Hampshire County will have seen many of the nominees on the big screen. And not just features — though viewers have been turning out in droves to see Best Picture contenders including “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lady Bird,” “Phantom Thread” and “The Shape of Water” — but also animated, live-action and documentary shorts. The depth and breadth of the cinema’s Oscars offerings allow the viewer to feel like a part of the process — almost like an honorary member of the Academy.

And the momentum doesn’t stop post-Oscars. Other special events include “Late Nights” for night owls (the theater is showing cult phenomenon “The Room” on March 9 at 9:45 p.m.) and “Science on Screen,” a nationwide program supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Film Foundation. Last month, the theater paired the film “Hidden Figures,” about the vital role of black, female mathematicians in the 1960s space race, with guest speaker Whitney Battle-Baptiste, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who examined the roots of black feminism in her book, “Black Feminist Archaeology.”

Amherst Cinema is one of 36 art houses to receive the grant for “Science on Screen,” a program that really blossoms in a place like the Valley, with its fertile ground for discussion and debate and its rich selection of authors and academics eager to share their expertise.

Likewise, “See-Hear-Feel-Film,” the cinema’s educational arts program for third-graders in the Valley, is designed to engage and enlighten: It aims to ignite creative writing and critical thinking using a film-based curriculum. Approximately 1,500 students participate annually; 70 percent of those young people come from underserved public schools, and all of the children receive scholarships.

In an era when viewers can stream movies on their screens, many small, community-based theaters around the country have chosen to go the nonprofit route. “It’s a very vibrant and doable model for people who love film,” Amherst Cinema’s executive director, Carol M. Johnson, told Hampshire Life. “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.”

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

It’s a testament to Amherst Cinema patrons, and to members in particular, that the theater is still thriving. On the day Allen reported her story — in the midst of Oscars season — several show times had sold out. As Johnson told Allen, “We absolutely hate turning people away!”

We applaud Amherst Cinema for selling out shows — without selling out.