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The house that Carol built: Amherst Cinema executive director retires after 13 years at the helm

  • Carol M. Johnson, the longtime executive director of the Amherst Cinema, is retiring from the movie house but says she’ll stay involved in an advisory capacity. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Johnson, at right, speaks a few years ago at Amherst Cinema with Randy and Karin Wilburn of Belchertown, who became two of the earliest members of the movie house. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Johnson, at right, talks a few years ago with cinema employees Dan Biegner, left, and Claire Crews. Staff at Amherst Cinema say the outgoing director created a strong, collaborative work environment. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Johnson, in center, cuts the ribbon on opening day at Amherst Cinema in 2006. Johnson says former Massachusetts Senate president Stanley Rosenberg, at far left, and former U.S. Rep. John Olver, next to him, helped steer state and federal funding to the movie house. PHOTO COURTESY OF AMHERST CINEMA

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2020 3:52:32 PM

AMHERST — It has been a cornerstone of the town’s arts scene and a key part of the business community since 2006, poised near the intersection of Amity and Pleasant streets in the heart of downtown.

The Amherst Cinema also has become a model for how an independent film house can weather the competition posed by streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO: by offering a mix of independent and more commercial films, special programming, in-person speakers and other features, and building a devoted membership.

At the helm of that effort has been the cinema’s executive director, Carol M. Johnson, who was also instrumental in getting Amherst Cinema off the ground, helping lead a community-driven effort back in the early 2000s that raised more than $3 million to open the movie house.

Now, after serving 13 years as the cinema’s director, Johnson, of Amherst, is stepping down. Some lingering health issues (not coronavirus-related) have left her without the energy to continue in her role, she said during a phone interview, though she added that she’ll be maintaining ties with staff and the cinema’s board of directors and helping in an advisory role.

“I’m going to stay involved,” said Johnson, who has been on medical leave for the past several weeks. “I think one of the things I’m most proud of is the staff — we’ve put together a group of really dedicated, talented people who know and love film, and I want to stay in touch with them.”

The cinema’s longtime business manager, Holly Greely, will serve as interim director as a search gets underway for a permanent director. 

“Carol has been an amazing mentor over the years,” Greely, who joined Amherst Cinema in 2007, wrote in an email. “She has had a very focused and sensible approach to managing the growth of all aspects of the cinema’s operation, including financial management, programming and staff development.”

That’s given the movie house some “healthy reserves” to help it through difficult times, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Greely added, while also helping build a robust membership — over 6,700 members. 

George Myers, the cinema’s general manager, has worked with Johnson for the past 11 years in selecting films and developing different programming. He credits the outgoing director with creating a “great work environment” that gave staff room to grow and develop their abilities, while also encouraging their own hard work and commitment to the cinema’s mission.

“Carol really cultivated a collaborative work environment,” said Myers. “I think a lot of that came from her own commitment (to the cinema) … This was always much more than a job to her. She’d been a very successful corporate lawyer — she didn’t have to do this, but she saw the value to the community of an independent cinema.

“She’s been a great mentor to me and others here,” he added, noting that several other staff members — the cinema has about 20 employees — have served for years, just as he and Greely have.

Special programming

In addition to screening foreign and other independent films that are rarely seen at more commercial theaters, Amherst Cinema has made its mark over the years with a wealth of special programming: theater, music and dance productions shown in high definition; series such as “Science on Screen” and film festivals built around unique themes; documentaries introduced by the directors or other in-person speakers.

Another notable project is “See-Hear-Feel-Film,” an arts program for third-grade students in which the schoolchildren come to the movie house to view short films, from all over the world, to learn how movies can tell stories and what tools filmmakers use to do that. Over 1,600 children from around the Valley take part in the program annually.

“I think Carol has given the community so much, through this varied programming, by developing a staff ethos of excellence, and by learning to say ‘no’ very gracefully,” said Salman Hameed, chair of the cinema’s board of directors and a professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College.

“Carol always got a lot of requests (from members and others) for films, and of course there are more films out there than we could show,” added Hameed. “But her focus was always on the cinema: what films can we show that will be good for us and our community and to our mission?”

Hameed also said the cinema, under Johnson’s leadership, has become a model for other independent movie houses around the country on how to run a fiscally sound and artistically diverse operation. Connie White, who has booked films for the cinema through her Amherst business, Balcony Booking, agrees with that assessment. 

“I see Amherst Cinema as one of the real success stories” among independent movie houses, said White, whose business books films for small theaters all across the country. “They have a really strong business model, and they know what films will appeal to their membership.”

For her part, Johnson says she’s grateful for all the support the cinema has received over the years: from members, the business community and, in some cases, legislators. Stanley Rosenberg, the former president of the Massachusetts Senate, and former U.S. Rep. John Olver, both of Amherst, were a big help in steering state and federal funding to the cinema in its early days, she said.

“It’s all been really gratifying,” Johnson added.

The cinema, which closed in March because of the pandemic — even before state regulations demanded that closure — since then has been offering films for home streaming through its website, and Greely, the interim director, said she and other staff continue to review what steps they’ll need to take to keep everyone safe once they’re allowed to reopen.

“We are being very cautious,” she said. Social distancing protocols, such as reduced seating capacity and more time between film screenings so the theaters can be cleaned, will certainly be part of it, she noted.

Whatever happens, Greely added, Johnson has left a strong foundation to enable the cinema to bounce back — a foundation that includes “a reputation for quality programming that inspires us to explore new worlds, and a staff that is talented, dedicated and excited to carry on her legacy.”

In honor of her long tenure and leadership, Amherst Cinema will name Theater One after Johnson, with a celebration to follow at a date to be determined.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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