Forty-five minutes until midnight.
The young man with the Alvy Singer glasses and the hair and innocence of Marty McFly chooses a seat in the exact center of the Art Deco theater. Followed closely behind him is a woman with the mischievous eyebrow of Scarlet O’Hara and a bag of popcorn in her hands. They sit in the near-empty room with their faces turned to each other, whispering. The lights are dim and the seats are red and plush. Golden sculptures of Greek gods look down on them from the walls. “Abilene” coos over the speakers. The flirtation is there and the mood is set.
There is a tap on the boy’s shoulder and his friend reminds him, “Hey – this isn’t date night.”
He’s right. This is @fter Midnight at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the movies are bloody, gory, sexy, vulgar, funky, provocative, oddball, borderline-offensive and always highly recommended. Couples who have come for traditional movie theater intimacy have likely found themselves in the wrong place.
Tonight’s film is a 2009 action movie spoofing 1970’s Blaxploitation flicks: Black Dynamite, starring Michael Jai White as a nun chuck-yielding, crime fighting, lady killing, all-around bad-ass whose given cult-moviegoers some of their favorite one liners since Pulp Fiction. “Can you dig it?”
Jesse Hassinger digs it. Which is why when he arrived at The Coolidge Corner Theatre four years ago, he decided to revamp the floundering @fter Midnight program.
Hassinger is a big, bearded guy who gathers his thoughts carefully before speaking them quietly (think Kevin Smith as Silent Bob, but not that silent, and with more hair). He attended The California Institute of the Arts where he studied film production. After graduation, he worked as a projectionist and then as a liaison between movie studios and exhibitors while he also directed and produced experimental films. In 2009, he moved to Boston and accepted the position of director of programming at Coolidge.
Before he arrived, attendance at @fter Midnight screenings had been dismal and interest in the program was lacking. Hassinger identified the problem: the schedule was inconsistent. Instead of once or twice a month, Hassinger installed @fter Midnight as a feature every Friday and Saturday evening, guaranteeing a respite for typical weekend shenanigans. “There is nothing to do in Boston,” he says. “Bars close at one, anyway. People want to skip that, or at least leave early, to catch a movie.”
Hassinger also recognized that because the films shown at @fter Midnight are not premieres, the caliber of film shown has to entice a person to drop ten dollars for the cost of admission instead of popping their own copy of the DVD into their laptop or scouring the Internet for a bootleg copy. However, this rarely is problematic because Hassinger, program coordinator Mark Anastasio, and other staff member collaborate and produce a cocktail of wonderfully weird, visually stunning cult-classics and gross-out gore flicks that fans always wish to see on the big screen.
Coolidge Corner Theatre operations director, and Hassinger’s officemate, Andrew Thompson jokes that there is never any competition between blockbuster premiere screenings and @fter Midnight: “While AMC was showing Twilight,” Thompson says, “we were probably showing Hannibal Holocaust.” Hannibal Holocaust is praised on Coolidge’s website for being, “The most controversial movie ever made… Banned and heavily censored throughout the world… [T]he found footage of four documentary filmmakers who experience brutal death at the hands of a savage South American tribe of flesh-eaters.”
As for what the guys think of the young adult vampire series: a poster for one of the Twilight films rests haphazardly against a wall in Thompson’s, Hassinger’s and Anastasio’s office, where three red darts pierce Bella Swan. From the collection of wounds in the pale face and surrounding area, it is clear darts is a favorite past time.
Thirty minutes until midnight.
As the couple greets their friend, other film patrons begin trickling in. The crowd is young, mostly college-age kids to early thirties looking for a break from house parties and bars, or maybe coming from one. The room pulses with conversation as the minutes near closer to show time. The chatter revolves around just how kick-ass this theater really is.
“You’ve never been here before?” “I feel like I can put my shit on the floor here. It’s so clean.” “This place is the coolest.” Craft beer and wine are available which may explain why the audience’s attention has turned to each other and the environment feels more party-like than the solitary, lonely existence of a night at the multiplex.
“I haven’t been here since Moonrise Kingdom.”
“I can generally always third-wheel a movie.”
An older gentleman with white tinsel-like hair sits removed from the prime seating where the crowd has gathered. He looks on, not annoyed by the boisterous energy, but entertained by it.
The midnight crowd — silver-haired man excluded — are the youngsters of the Coolidge Corner community. They grew up watching Disney movies on VHS. They remember that the longer films they owned like The Green Mile and Braveheart required two tapes. They remember the switch to DVD and then to Blu-Ray. They harbor the same nostalgia for their DVD slash VHS players that music aficionado’s hold for vintage eight-track players and turntables. Transitioning to online streaming was welcomed but, more often than not, a stack of DVDs, Blu-Rays, and VHS will adorn shelves in their rooms like trophies. While at-home screening methods have changed regularly, going to the movie theaters always meant watching a movie on 35-millimeter film. This has been the case for all movie-going audiences for generations. But there will never be another generation to experience new movies this way.
Digital filmmaking is the future of the movies – the rapidly approaching future. Celluloid movie production will cease completely in all major Hollywood studios in the next few years beginning with 20th Century Fox at the end of this year. “The transition to digital projection is arguably the biggest transformation to hit the film industry since the advent of sound, ” Denise Kasell, the executive director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, said in a recent press release.
This monumental development means that theaters nationwide have to transition to digital projection if they want to continue to showcase new films. For Regal, AMC, and the other large theater chains, updating equipment poses no problem. But for independent movie houses across the nation, the cost of updating is crippling or impossible. According to the president of The National Association of Theater Owners, John Fithian, nearly 10,000 theaters nationwide remain unconverted as of last August. The Coolidge launched a fundraising campaign last October called “Keep Us Shining” in order to raise the $223,000 necessary to acquire digital projection. As of February 7, 2013, they met their fundraising goal ensuring continuation in the digital cinema generation.
Beth Gillian is the associate director of development, marketing & outreach. Her office sits next to Hassinger’s “man cave”, as she calls it. Gillian’s office is white. A movie poster of The Artist, 2012’s Oscar winning silent film, hangs on one of the walls. A mug with Meryl Streep’s face, half filled with tea or coffee sits atop her desk next to a splay of papers and her Mac desktop. Gillian is a fan of 1930’s film. Bringing Up Baby. The Classics. And she is a classic beauty; neat blonde hair, clear face, and a bright smile. Her hands balance atop her belly, a growing baby bump.
Gillian was an integral part of the “Keep Us Shining” Digital Campaign but she won’t take all the credit. The effort was a collaboration among the staff and board members of Coolidge and of the community that supports the theater year round.
“We received support from over six hundred donors,” she says. “We would get individual checks for five dollars or ten dollars, whatever someone was able to afford.” A generous grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council early in the fundraising efforts was an integral part of gaining community support. But, to be honest, she never believed that they wouldn’t meet their fundraising goal, the community — the film lovers — wouldn’t allow it.
The theater’s eighty-year lifespan is riddled with financial difficulties but it is what makes the history so rich. For example, in 1989, when the property owner threatened the theater with demolition, a grassroots organization petitioned for the theater to be dubbed a historic site by Brookline’s Historical Commission. The petition stopped the property developer for a full year. When plans for annihilation grew nearer again four hundred people linked arms in the August heat, literally hugging the theater in protest.
Of course, generous benefactors have largely solved financial woes throughout the years, but it is often the communities demand for action and their love for the theater that has prompted such generosity.
But the community didn’t always embrace the theater. As plans for a movie theater in Brookline began, broadsides were distributed around the neighborhood exclaiming, “NO Moving-Picture Theaters for BROOKLINE!” Under this headline, the author asks readers to “Consider The Children” Apparently, in the beginning of the century, people feared that cinema was a dark art that impaired mental development, weakened moral fiber, and cheapened the high ideals of life. “Will your children become better men and women, better citizens, better fathers and mothers if we make it easier for them to attend the moving-picture theaters? The almost unanimous opinion of doctors, teachers and clergy is that they will not.”
The citizens of Brookline would not be swayed for seventeen years. In 1933, during the height of The Great Depression, the theater finally opened, inviting patrons into the modern theater. Julius Kaplan, a writer for a local paper described the new theater: “Passing from the lobby into the foyer, a vague impression of pomp grows upon one…voluptuous carpeting leads up the staircase with shining banisters…The mezzanine continues the riot of sumptuous…a fantasia of pigment will burst upon movie goers.” The opening of the Coolidge was not the feared plague the citizens imagined, but a refuge from the hardness of life at the time and for only thirty-three cents. Today, those citizens would shudder if they saw what graced the screens of Brookline’s beloved movie house each Friday and Saturday night but they wouldn’t be able to deny the theater’s integrity remains intact. In fact, even after eighty years of wear-and-tear-and-renovations, the décor is homage to the original design.
Today the theater’s exterior features a classic marquee and neon “Coolidge” sign. On cold winter days, bundled film patrons slide their money and membership cards into a small slot of a big glass window to purchase their movie ticket. With a smile they are directed inside where they can purchase myriad snacks and beverages in the colorful lobby that still has all that pomp. If their film is screening in the larger theater, typically pictures like past Oscar contenders Django and Moonrise Kingdom, then they make their way to the right to the classic deco theater. Otherwise folks head upstairs to the 200-seat, 45-seat or plush 12-seat theaters. Patrons will avoid the gold framed, red door with the 8 X 11 inch piece of white computer paper warning Emergency Exit. Behind this door, are the offices of the Coolidge Corner Theatre staff.
Five minutes after midnight.
A man appears on stage and the conversation dies. The assemblage is a movie-loving one: When it’s show time, they don’t need to be reprimanded to turn off their cell- phones and to cease conversations with their neighbors.
The man onstage does not demand attention nor does he appear to desire it. He does not introduce himself, but greets the group “Cool to have you,” and he means it. “Pretty good crowd here tonight which is fitting because this is a pretty good flick.” As expected, a plug for future programming comes next, but this self- conscious advertisement is met with excitement, not apathy. The evening’s ’emcee’ offers no further introduction to the upcoming Big Screen Classics program besides, “Ill just read these to you” as if to say “These titles advertise themselves.” And they do.
“Down By Law, The Night of The Hunter, Dazed and Confused.”
Some hoots from the stoner group in the left corner.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“Yes!” Miss O’ Hara and Mr. McFly’s arms raise in a celebratory V, synchronized yet spontaneous. Applause from around the theater.
“Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Applause, cheers, hoots and hollers that don’t cease as the emcee continues.
“Mean Streets, Annie Hall, Sunset Boulevard, TheBig Lebowski, The Blues Brothers, Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Royal Tenenbaums...”
As the man leaves the stage and the red velvet curtain opens to reveal the screen, the cheers for Annie Hall and Rosemary’s Baby become the welcome for Black Dynamite.
Because much of the programming at Coolidge, such as @fter Midnight and Big Screen Classics, involve screening older films that were shot in 35mm, the upgrade to digital is much more an addition than a replacement. “From the prospective of a film enthusiast and filmmaker,” Hassinger says, “as much as is possible, it’s important to show a film as the director has intended it to be seen.” The upgrade to digital does not mean the end of film or the projectionist at Coolidge. The throwback films will not be screened in the digitally enhanced versions.
For Hassinger, digital conversions, or enhancements, are doing films a disservice. They are advertised as improving picture quality but what they are really doing is wiping away the inherent grain of older films leaving, an unnatural polished product. It’s like when an aging star denies herself the natural aging process and chooses Botox, lip injections, collagen, and face lifts. Sure she may be smoother, but does she look better?
For Hassinger, the one digital enhancement that he thinks improves the picture quality is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The film was screened in the scorching desert heat leaving unintended marks on films, scars that can be seen on screen that Lear never intended for. The digitally enhanced version is a careful restoration of this film, not just a glossy finish. In the same respect, converting digital to film would be sacrificing quality for convenience. To continue to be a first run theater, the Coolidge needs to have its two larger theaters equipped with digital projection.
However, the small theater would not be able to survive if it was only a first run theater, either. Today, an independent movie theater competing against a multiplex is like an independent bookstore competing with Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The Coolidge must offer a diversity of programs that appeal to the appetites of every demographic. They need to do things that theater enterprises are not doing.
For example, the theater has a program called “Science on Screen,” which is a national effort that pairs films with a lecture. The pairs are often unlikely and always interesting. One favorite was a screening of Night of The Living Dead that was matched with a lecture on the zombie brain in which the lecturer posed the question, “Is a zombie brain a possibility.” This lecturer went on to write an entire book on the concept. An upcoming feature in this serious is a pairing of This is Spinal Tap with guest speaker Christopher Shera, who will answer questions such as What is sound? How does it differ from silence? Can you hear yourself hearing? And how loud can we go?
“Box Office Babies” invites new mothers and their babies to the movies together. “Sounds of Silence” pairs silent films with live orchestras. “Talk Cinema” encourages post film banter, “Goethe German Film” features independent German films and Ballet in Cinema showcases world famous ballet performances from around the globe.
One hour and fifty minutes after midnight.
Black Dynamite ends and the audience applauses as if at a Hollywood premiere. As the credits roll the crowd stays in their seats. Favorite quotes are exchanged. “Quiet! You’ll wake up the rest of the bitches!”People shake their heads and laugh. The cinephiles stretch their arms, gather their burly winter coats, and prepare themselves for catching a cab home. One audience member pulls on his leather jacket that compliments his orange disco-inspired pants. His afro is picked out to an extraordinary height, an obvious homage to Black Dynamite himself.
In the post-film confusion, Mr. McFly finally turns to Miss O’Hara and steals a kiss.