By Langdon Kessner
Coolidge Corner is one of Boston’s more well-known independent movie theaters. Located in the heart of Brookline, Mass., it has been serving its community since Dec. 30, 1993.
Katherine Tallman, executive director and CEO of Coolidge Corner Foundation, has been with the organization for as long as anyone. After serving on the board of Coolidge Corner Foundation for eight years, she was asked to step in on an interim basis when the old CEO stepped down. She liked the job so much that she came out of retirement to work full-time.
“I moved here 30 years ago for a job from the Detroit area and was always a major film fan,” said Tallman. Prompted by Jay Carr, who was film critic for the Detroit Free Press at the time, she read whatever he wrote and would try to go see his recommendations.
“When I moved here for this job, I didn’t know anybody here. It was random. I came around the corner and I found the Coolidge Corner and I was like “Oh wow they had all these movies here.” This was when the theater was about to go down. Not only did I found the Coolidge, I also found Jay Carr working at the Boston Globe and it came full circle.”
Not only does the Coolidge Corner show movies but it does a lot more for the community.
“We do a lot of events and collaborate with a lot of nonprofits and serve as a venue for elementary school graduations. Brookline is a tight community and people have been coming to this theater since 1933,” said Tallman.
Even with all the changes in the film industry, Tallman remains confident that the theater will still be around since it has made it this far.
“Before I came, the movie business has been threatened forever. They said the same thing with silent films going away, or VHS being replaced by DVD, streaming. The reality is there is a ton of product available. People who really like movies would rather see them on a big screen.”
The theater curates its content very carefully. Tallman boasts that it shows movies a regular viewer wouldn’t see in a theater like AMC or Regal. For example, the Coolidge Corner showed eight out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars last year.
It also hosts a wide variety of film showings that don’t include new releases. The After Midnight showings involve B-Movie classics every Saturday at midnight. Big Screen Classics shows old classics presented in a clear format as they were when they were first released. Both of them often sell out.
The Coolidge Corner even offers parents-and-kids-only screenings and outdoor showings, which also attract a big crowd.
Gardner Reed, an Emerson College film student, said he believes that the theater is “a film museum of sorts that lets you watch grand classics the way they were meant to be seen with screenings held in an old theater adorned with stage curtains and wall statues of Greek dramatic characters that give you a sort of time-travel feel.”
Reed added, “offering 70mm screenings from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ all the way to Dario Argento’s ‘Suspira,’ film is alive and well within the walls of the Coolidge.”
The biggest change the movie theater encountered was converting to digital, the same challenge faced by all the other independent theaters.
“One thing that changed in 2013 was that the distributors decided to do film in digital. No more film, all digital. That put a lot of small cinemas out of business. A lot. It cost us about $300,000 to change over. They were very expensive.”
Tallman, said the studios offered no help, but luckily the Coolidge Corner community did. “The community gathered right away and got us all equipped and everything and now it is fine. Now we do all three: digital 35 and 70.” She noted, “A lot of small theaters went down, hundreds across the country, It really killed small independent cinema theaters. It’s a tough business.”
The Coolidge managed to survive and stay around, giving people with a desire for film a place to go. Tallman said this has helped the community in many ways.
“People need community. It’s critical to mental health and people need a place to go at the end of the day and we offer that place,” she said. “We have people who have met here and got engaged. It’s just a way for people to come together. They come here and they’re like minded people they’re here to see a movie and it just clicks.”
Along with bring the community together, the Coolidge Corner also uses film as a way to talk about pressing current social issues, showing controversial films and hosting a discussion afterwards.
“Somebody we collaborated with wrote to me and is a Coolidge member and wanted to talk about operating a film program about Black Lives Matter,” she explained. “He had panel and film suggestions and it was really well thought out. Normally we don’t consider those suggestions but his was different.”
This led to a brainstorming of ideas and deciding what kind of issues can the theater talk about. “The list of social issues is endless,” Tallmann said. “We’ll sit down in the next couple of months and program next year but the opportunities are great. The people who come to speak are extraordinary. People who are trying to make a difference. It’s not meant to be controversial but to be a discussion and expand understanding.”
Tallman further explained how “It was pretty incredible when you have someone telling you what’s going on through film we realize, ‘Wow, we should be more understanding to this,’ even more than we are intellectually.”
“FIlm is such a wonderful form to entertain and engage. And our mission is to inform and engage so what could be better? They can be escapist or thoughtful, take you to a different world. There is no comparison to watch a movie on a big screen with other people to laugh or cry with other people,” said Tallman.