Amherst Cinema to celebrate its 10th anniversary

By Isaac Burke

Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian
(Shannon Broderick/Daily Collegian)

As Amherst Cinema prepares to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, executive director Carol Johnson says she is proud of the independent cinema’s contribution to the community.

At one point though, the storied theater’s future was in jeopardy.

The cinema will host festivities on its terrace Wednesday, Nov. 11, to kick off a year of programming that will hark back to the cinema’s roots. In remembrance of the cinema’s first screening in 2006, they will show the movie “The Queen,” have tea and cakes, and a double of Queen Elizabeth II will be present to entertain guests.

There will also be a juggler and other family friendly activities, according to Johnson, which will culminate in speeches from community members about the cinema’s first 10 years.

Following “The Queen,” the cinema will play one film each month picked from audience favorites, many of which will be accompanied by the director or another guest speaker. In December, for example, director Debra Granik will come to speak at a screening of “Winter’s Bone,” her popular 2010 independent film starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Amherst Cinema was not always so festive, however; under its previous owners, the building was very nearly foreclosed upon in 1999 and it was in such poor shape that it had been closed periodically for health and safety code violations.

It was only through the work of what Johnson called “a group of visionary” local citizens that the owners were convinced to sell the building, avoiding a foreclosure auction. The group formed a board of directors and established a nonprofit, with the intention of rebuilding the cinema as a community theater dedicated to the arts.

For the next seven years, the board appealed to members of the community, government and the universities in the area to try to raise the $3 million that they would need to rebuild.

In 2004, Johnson was named the president of the board, and she secured a number of large grants that allowed the cinema to break ground in May 2006. The cinema opened in November 2006 and its loans were paid off shortly thereafter.

Since then, the cinema has shown 200 films a year in 20 languages, sold over one million tickets and popped over 35 tons of popcorn, according to its brochure.

According to Johnson though, the greatest triumphs for the cinema were overcoming the “Great Recession” and becoming a beacon for independent cinema. She said patrons often tell her that they come for the diversity of the films they offer.

“We find things that are a little off the beaten path,” she said of their repertoire. “They weren’t made to make money, they were made because the filmmakers had something to say.”

Although Amherst Cinema is small, she says, its reach and notoriety are much larger.

“It’s a big city cinema in a small town,” she said.

The cinema has also been a place for community engagement in the arts; for the past five years, it has held an “arts and literacy” program for third graders in the area, which has seen over 6,000 kids to date.

Its place in the community has been solidified, though, by the over 4,500 members the cinema has attracted from all over the Pioneer Valley. Many of them are from within Amherst itself, but some come from as far afield as Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Jonathan and Susan von Ranson, who live about a half hour away in Wendell, say that they come to the cinema because they love the range of movies that they show.

Although they are not members, Jonathan said that having a local cinema gives him and his wife a sense of community, and they often go to the movies with friends.

“I love it,” said von Ranson. “It creates the culture of cinematic art.”

Isaac Burke can be reached at [email protected]