Northampton filmmaker eyeing return of an indie movie theater

  • The old Pleasant Street Theater in Northampton, above, was shuttered in 2012. Below, the former Brake King at 236 Pleasant St. is a potential location for an independent cinema, according to Sut Jhally, the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • 236 Pleasant Street in Northampton, formerly a Brake King, Monday, Feb. 11, 2019. This site is a potential location for an independent cinema, according to Sut Jhally, the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/11/2019 11:20:13 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A city filmmaker is trying to bring an independent cinema back to Northampton.

Sut Jhally, the founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, says he has raised around $4,000 of the $10,000 he would need to conduct a feasibility study for the project. Northampton has not had an independent movie theater since 2012, when Pleasant Street Theater closed.

“Is there a place for independent theater in the age of Netflix?” Jhally asked rhetorically in a phone interview Sunday. He certainly thinks there is, though he has some questions.

For instance, could Northampton financially sustain an independent movie theater? Could the theater also function as a community space? Could the project succeed without hurting Amherst Cinema?

These are some of the concerns Jhally is hoping to answer with the feasibility study, which he says would cost around $10,000 if conducted by Camoin Associates. The same firm also conducted an economic impact assessment for Northampton ahead of the opening of the MGM Springfield casino.

“I think that’s a really good idea to see what kind of a model would work in our community,” Brian Foote, executive director of the Northampton Arts and Culture Department, said Monday.

Foote cited Cinema Northampton and the Northampton Film Festival as two efforts he and others in the community have organized to keep independent film alive in the city. He also mentioned the nonprofit Amherst Cinema as an example of a successful model. But whether a private cinema could survive is another question.

“As a for-profit endeavor, I don’t know if it’s possible to have a small cinema compete with Cinemark and streaming services in people’s homes,” he said.

But asking those questions is an important first step, Foote said. And he is not the only one who backs the idea of bringing back an independent theater to the city.

“I think it would be incredible to have a cinema back in Northampton,” said Al Williams, executive director of Northampton Community Television. “Do I think it’s possible is a trickier question. It’s a matter of what kind of spaces are available … and what kind of support.”

Members of Northampton Community Television took over the Northampton Film Festival in 2015, and since then Williams said the festival’s organizers have worked to build a film experience lots of people will come out and support.

“I would say we haven’t quite solved it yet,” he said, adding that it won’t be easy work getting a theater off the ground. But despite the difficulties, he said he’s supportive of Jhally’s endeavor. “I think if there’s tremendous value that people have for film as an art form, it’s something they should consider supporting.”

Jhally, who is also a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has already identified a potential downtown property for the theater: the former Brake King site at 236 Pleasant St.

“It would be a great place for it — we could call it ‘the New Pleasant Street Theater,’” Jhally said, and laughed, adding that he has talked with the property owners and that they seemed intrigued. However, Jhally said the owners want to decide in the next few weeks what kind of development they want in the space. In other words, Jhally said, time is short.

Jhally already has put in some legwork on the project. He sent a fundraising email around to people he knows in November, and the mayor posted it on his website. Since then, the project has raised money steadily.

“There’s a lot of interest in it,” Jhally said. “Whether it can generate into the completion of the project, that’s a different subject.”

Jhally is directing those interested in donating to the Media Education Foundation’s website.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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