If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never know it was there. The flashing lights and glowing marquees that adorn most movie theaters are nowhere to be found. Except for a small green sign hung discreetly on the brick wall of another store, there is no indication of the location of Images Theater on Spring Street.
In order to get to Images, you must travel down a short alleyway and cut through the lobby of Canterbury’s pub. Arriving at the glass doors that seal off the dim entrance to the theater, you will find a few unadorned posters announcing the evenings showings (usually one at 7 p.m. and one at 9 p.m.).
Professor of English Shawn Rosenheim hopes to change all that. With a small group of Williamstown community members who share a love of film and a lack of experience in running movie theaters, Rosenheim has taken charge of the administration of Images. He hopes to revitalize the dying theater by turning it into a non-profit organization with a revamped interior and a vastly more aggressive advertising campaign.
Over the past three years, the 60-year-old theater has watched its audiences shrink and its revenues plunge. When the most recent owner, Don Fisher, put the struggling business up for sale, no one was interested in purchasing it. After two years of looking for a buyer who could put up the capital needed to rescue Images from bankruptcy, Fisher decided to stop searching. Images Theater would simply close its doors. Given its low, nearly subterranean, profile, it seemed unlikely that anyone in the community would notice the movie house’s disappearance.
However, a group of Williamstown residents, including Rosenheim, did notice. They contended that the small theater was a vital component of the Williamstown community. Often the films shown at Images are not shown in the more commercial Berkshire Mall Cinema, so the service that the theater provided was a valuable one.
Led by Lawrence Weber, a retired investor with experience in business matters, the community group gave themselves a daunting task: to raise the $75,000 needed to buy the theater from Fisher and re-establish it as a not-for-profit venture. With the support of the community and Williams College, which was a major donor to the campaign, the group succeeded. With $83,000 in donations, the committee found itself suddenly the owner of a small art-house theater.
Even with this success, numerous problems still threaten the future of Images. As a non-profit organization, the theater is entitled to certain tax benefits and can make use of free or low-cost advertising on Willinet and in college publications. Nevertheless, the overhead costs of keeping a theater running, even if it is a small one, are huge: there is rent to be paid, employees to be hired, equipment to be purchased and maintained, advertising to be done, and most importantly the movies themselves must be funded.
Unlike SAC or Cinephiles, who rely on the College for funding and equipment and whose status as educational organizations gets them special deals on film rentals, Images must derive all of its funding from admissions fees paid by its patrons. Therein lies the major problem.
A decade ago Images underwent renovations that significantly reduced the physical size of the theater, rendering the space, in Rosenheim’s words, “inadequate.” In the past several years, the theater has seen ticket revenues fall steadily. It became fairly common for patrons to find themselves virtually alone in the theater as they watched a film on a Saturday night. In any business, a decline in patronage is problematic, but in the movie business it is especially devastating since costs for screening a movie remain the same whether that movie is watched by one patron or 100. The formula for success is therefore both simple and incredibly difficult: get more people to watch movies at Images.
The steering committee has a slew of ideas about how to accomplish that goal. They have hired two new co-managers for the theater, Angela Cardinali and Alexandra Kalmanofsky. Although neither woman has run a theater before, they each have business experience that the committee believes will be essential for the success of the venture. More importantly, they possess a firm belief that Images can and will survive. When asked about the future of theater Kalmanofsky stated, “The future of Images is looking up. We want to be a cinema that shows the best independent films for the community. Some of the best work is being done in the independent market, and we feel that these great films have a home in our theater.”
Many hurdles must be cleared before making that vision a reality. The first items on Cardinali and Kalmanofsky’s list of things to do for Images include training more projectionists (now there is one) and making minor renovations to the interior of the theater so that Images “is a more pleasant place to come.”
Undoubtedly however, the item that tops the list is publicity. The primary target of that publicity is the theater’s largest untapped pool of audience members: the Williams student body.
“For some reason,” Rosenheim said, “Images just isn’t part of the students’ consciousness. We’ve got to put it there.” Already Images has begun to advertise screenings in the Daily Advisor. A web page has been established at www imagescinema.org with information regarding current and future screenings. The theater plans to advertise films with posters in Baxter Hall as well. The theater has also instituted a $5 student ticket price for every screening. There are also plans to run series of classic films that students would not have a chance to see in other movie houses and to sponsor talks by local and national filmmakers.
The greatest thrust of the effort to raise student support for Images will occur this coming fall. “We want to target the incoming freshman class,” Rosenheim stated. “We hope to show late night screenings of horror films during First Days and offer free screenings of movies with the support of SAC. That way, by the second or third week the first-years will think of Images as a part of their Williams experience.”
Rosenheim, who teaches the popular Feature Film class for the English department makes regular use of Images as a resource in his teaching, often renting it out to use for class screenings of movies only available on 35 mm film, which college equipment cannot process. While recognizing that Images must compete with SAC and the Berkshire Mall Cinema, which show more mainstream, blockbuster films than Images, Rosenheim claims that there is still an appetite for high-quality, less-hyped films in the Williams community. “I don’t think Williams students are so insular that they will refuse to show interest in anything not directly related to Williams or the ‘real world’ of the Berkshire Mall. I could be wrong, but we’ll just have to wait and find out.”
If that sounds like a challenge, it is one. Rosenheim and other members of the Images steering committee know where the support must come from if the theater is to survive. Although the new Images will offer children’s movies and weekday matinees aimed at attracting kids and senior citizens, it is toward Williams students that the current publicity campaign is primarily directed. “We know that we’ve got to have the support of the student body if we’re going to make it,” Rosenheim says. “They’re the audience that’s largely untapped. It’s up to them.”
Students wishing to offer comments or suggestions about the new management of Images Theater may send messages to Shawn.J.Rosenheim@williams.edu or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, during the May runs of Mrs. Dalloway and Fallen Angels, Images will cut the tic
ket price for any student mentioning this article.