Independent Theaters Still Thriving, Better than Ever in Boston

(The Coolidge Corner at Brookline, Mass. Photo by Langdon Kessner)
(The Somerville Theater. Photo by Langdon Kessner)

By Langdon Kessner


While it is neither New York nor Los Angeles, Boston has just a sizeable market for film culture and appreciation.

Boston is home to many independent or art house-oriented theaters. These theaters are dedicated to showing films outside the blockbuster realm, focusing on documentaries and independent films that normally don’t make it to the big screens of AMC or Regal.

The Somerville Theater, The Brattle, Coolidge Corner, and Harvard Film Archive are just some of the many active hotspots for people who love movies.

Ian Judge, head of Somerville Theater, grew up two blocks from the theater in Davis Square. “Back then, in the 80s, it was a very different area and the theater was a tad rundown. But it did have interesting programming then, double features, etc,” said Judge.

Judge was hired to run the Somerville Theater in 2002, something he considered to be his “dream job.”

“Slowly I have helped push the theater from a rundown, second-run house into a first-run theater with great programming and many improvements, though with an old building there are always more projects than we can do at once.”

Brittany Gravely, publicist for the Harvard Film Archive, has been with the theater for seven years. Partnered with Harvard University, its operators take an educational approach to the films they show.

“Initially Harvard’s Film, basically a group of film professors at Harvard in the ’60s, were very dedicated to film studies as an academic tool and showing films on par with literature. At that time, that was an unusual radical thing. They started collecting films and amassed a collection,” said Gravely.

(Inside the Harvard Film Archive. Photo by: Langdon Kessner)

“We’re pretty old-fashioned,” she said. “We used to be under the museum and now we’re under the library because we have an archive, over 35,000 films,” she said. “Researchers can come and screen things. Because we’re part of Harvard. We’ve stayed old-fashioned. We only accept checks and cash except we might change that this year.”

Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of Coolidge Corner Foundation, had a 30-year background in financial services and served on the board of Coolidge for eight years. Five years ago, she was asked to step in on an interim basis when the former director stepped down. She decided to apply for the position full-time when she realized how much she loved the job.

“I would never work in another cinema,” said Tallman with pride. “They’re really businesses. We are too, but they are just showing movies for concessions. We are much more community-centered that is based in film. We are nonprofit and wouldn’t be here without our community.”

Ivy Moylan is the executive director of the Brattle, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She, along with Ned Hinkle, started the nonprofit  that runs the program and operates the Brattle theater in 2000.

(The Brattle Theater. Photo provided by: Creative Commons)

“Before that, I actually worked in the ‘90s on the floor as the head manager at the Brattle theater, which is how I got connected to it. I’ve been with them for over 20 years,” Moylan said. “I specifically focus on the administration and fundraising.”

Moylan noted the Brattle has a history that goes all the way back to 1890. It has been used as a community center theater, a gymnasium for Cambridge police, and a theater for blacklisted performers.

The Brattle is a repertory theater. While it will show first-run films or restored classic films,  it consists of “films from a particular director, genre, or subject shown over the course of a week, or on the same weekday throughout the month.”

The Brattle also has only one screen, while the other theaters have multiple screens.

The main difference between a large chain theater and a small independent theater is financing. Theaters like Coolidge Corner or the Brattle don’t have access to large funds so they go through other means. The Somerville Theater has been a family-owned business for over 100 years. Coolidge Corner and The Brattle are nonprofit.

“We stay in business because we have dedicated owners who have seen us through thin times, said Somerville Theater’s Judge. “We also own our real estate and have tenants that pay rent, so that helps. And ultimately we are in a great marketplace that has high population density. It all helps.

“But a lot of mom-and-pop places in smaller towns are gone now and will be gone forever,” he said. “They couldn’t afford the change to digital and nobody would finance it because you’d never get a return on the investment.”

The conversion to digital was perhaps the biggest obstacle all theaters faced, mainly for financial reasons, as digital projectors can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tallman bemoaned the loss of some theaters along with Judge, saying she remembers a theater like The Nickelodeon in Boston that closed in 2003.  A small first-run theater off Kenmore Square.  Theaters like those are now gone.

Ed Symkus, longtime film critic for GateHouse Media, recalled the vibrant community of small theaters that are now a thing of the past. “We had to much more theaters like the Nickelodeon and Beacon Hill Theater and Copley Place Cinemas,” he said. “They’re gone now for whatever reason or another, be it digital or lack of funds or attendance.”

Even with the loss of those theaters, the ones that were able to survive are still doing very well. Many are even seeing a growth in audience. Moylan said she views the Brattle as being in a “renaissance.”

“We survived the scary years of Netflix and on demand and now we’re really experiencing a growth in audience.,” she said. “There’s are a younger audience is there is a larger portion of the audience than it’s been in the past.”

The attendance rate at Somerville Theater ranged from 150,000 to 200,000 per year, said Judge. “Some years are better than others but the only variable is a hit movie – sometimes you get six in a year, sometimes four, sometimes you get a few moderately popular ones in a row that are just as good as one big one. I’d say the trend has been steady.”

“We generate about 220,000 ticket sales a year, we have 220,000 patrons a year,” said Tallman of the Coolidge Corner Foundation. “It’s very healthy. The art-house world in general has been doing really well compared to mainstream cinemas. We tell people to come here all the time so people can be proud of being part of the community.”

At the Harvard Film Archive, Gravely said they “do have a hardcore membership but anyone can come. And our audience for the film series can change. The demographics can change a lot, but definitely our crowd is older and we would like to see younger.”

The future of these art house cinemas remain bright. All of theater operators  expressed hope and optimism with many like Harvard Film Archive and Coolidge Corner planning to expand services.

For Gravely, moviegoing can go beyond simple entertainment. “It is not that hard to get out and go to the movies in Boston but there is a thing that we can now watch from our own living room. That theatrical experience where you’re in a dark space with strangers all sharing a movie together,” she said. “Cinema really focuses me because there are no distractions because it’s just me and the film. If I’m at home there’s my home all around me. But the cinema I can’t go anywhere. It’s just the film.”

About Langdon Kessner 4 Articles
Graduate student in journalism at Emerson College who recently finished a story on undocumented students in Boston. Now working on another project regarding immigration.