Amherst Cinema continues to thrive in age of Netflix

Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013

AMHERST — While many independent movie theaters have closed in recent years, the Amherst Cinema has survived. It has branched out into educational programming, and this year it 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 accessibility of DVDs and movies that can be streamed to home televisions, 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?

“We try to achieve an enjoyable theatergoing 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.”

“There is still nothing like watching a movie in a dark theater with a big screen and a wonderful sound system,” said Ken Rosenthal, chairman of the Amherst Cinema’s board of directors.

The Amherst Cinema, however, isn’t the only independent movie theater in the county. South Hadley’s Tower Theatres is a for-profit operation showing first-run movies, said owner Robert Adam.

The theaters recently underwent major renovations, installing black leather bucket seats and providing additional leg room and other amenities. Adam said he is confident about filling his two 100-seat spaces in 2013.

“The small, mom-and-pop theaters are not dead at all,” he said. “People are still looking to go out and socialize. This isn’t completely turning into cyberworld. This is a much different experience than watching a film in your own home.”

More than movies

At Amherst Cinema, part of the strategy to draw patrons is to offer more than current 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 screening of his new documentary, “The Central Park Five,” with tickets available to members only.

The cinema’s bread and butter, however, is “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. The five top sellers accounted for 38 percent of ticket revenues, Johnson said.

The cinema’s nonprofit status enables it to seek tax-deductible contributions and avoid commercial pressures, she said.

Also crucial to its success, Johnson said, 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. “It wouldn’t have been economically possible without him,” she said. “He’s a very civic-minded person, and a dream to work with.”

Not every venture has been successful, however. In 2008, Amherst Cinema took over the Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton. Despite the nonprofit’s efforts, Pleasant Street closed last June. It had physical limitations that couldn’t be fixed, Johnson said. In addition, if it had stayed open it would have required a major investment in technology.

New screen

This spring, the Amherst Cinema will open a 25-seat Studio Theater nearby in the former M&M Links space, Johnson said, allowing it to show 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.” “We can find and show more small gems,” she said.

Also this year, it will spend $175,000 on technology known as Digital Cinema Package, or DCP, which is replacing 35-millimeter projection and will soon be the industry standard. DCP will reduce the film industry’s shipping costs and enable it to preserve copyrights and prevent duplication, Johnson said.

The cinema has an annual budget of $1.4 million, with 40 percent of that going to pay nine full-time and 11 part-time employees, she said. Forty-five percent of the ticket revenue goes toward renting films from distributors, she said.

The Amherst Cinema’s annual budget includes about $300,000 in membership fees and donations, money that Johnson says is crucial. “People are tempted to take us for granted,” she said. “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.”

The 2,700 “silver” members, who pay $60 a year ($40 for seniors and students), get discounts on ticket prices. Most of them are from 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 compared membership in the Amherst Cinema to membership in WFCR radio or WGBY 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.”

One reversal

The cinema does not want to hike ticket prices, which top out at $8.75 at some weekend showings, Johnson said. “We couldn’t raise them enough. 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.

This March, it will screen 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 Research 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, Amherst Cinema will 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 also 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.

Young audiences

Most weekday mornings, when the Amherst Cinema doesn’t show movies for the public, the largest theater is filled with third-grade children, more than half of them from Holyoke and Chicopee. The field trips are designed to teach the youngsters how to actively watch movies, said Jake Meginsky, the cinema’s 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.”

Those youngsters will grow up to be educated filmgoers, Amherst Cinema staff hopes. And that, in turn, will help keep small movie theaters in business, despite the rise in home viewing via DVDs and, increasingly, streaming services like Netflix.

“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.”


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