As the sole movie theater in town, Images Cinema has a longstanding history with the residents of Williamstown. Be it the go-to destination for a family outing on a Thursday afternoon or the rendezvous site for College students kicking off their Friday nights, Images is a staple in the community that attracts a diverse group of movie-goers.
But how does the movie selection process at Images work? Who decides what to screen? With those questions in mind, I sat down with Doug Jones, executive director of Images, and Janet Curran, the theater’s managing director, to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the process of how exhibitors choose which films to show.
It starts with the fact that Images is a single-screen theater in a small town. To show a film, the movie distributor sets terms that Images must agree to. Such terms include percentages to pay back to the distributor and how long the film has to be shown. The closer to the national opening date of a film, the higher the price.
“We’re also up against shrinking release windows [because] films are in theaters for a shorter amount of time than they used to be,” Curran said. Knowing the slew of commercial factors, both Jones and Curran agreed that it’s difficult. “We don’t benefit from economies of scale,” Curran said, laughing.
A specific instance of this would be the recent blockbuster and newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther. As a film lauded for its social value and groundbreaking representation, it was something Images would have loved to feature. “We wanted to get Black Panther, but in order to show Black Panther, we would have had to have it for more weeks than a small-town, single-theater [venue] could possibly show the movie for,” Curran said, expressing regret in how the logistics made screening the film simply not feasible.
The ultimate challenge has been preserving balance: showing films for their artistry, intellectual vitality and social significance while knowing that a theater is a business, and tickets still need to be sold. “That’s the constant back and forth.” Jones said. “Sometimes everything falls into place – this is a good film, people are interested in it, let’s do it. Other times, this is a really good film, but we’ll have to work a little harder to get people in the theater… Every now and then, we show a movie that we know not that many people will come to see, but those people who will come will really love it.”
The mechanics of the selection process begin with conversations between Jones and Curran about their plans for the upcoming month. Then, they’ll discuss their vision with a booking agent and hear out their input. This combining of perspectives is critical. “We’re looking more at the artistic and how the film is representing different communities, and he’s looking more nationally at the bottom line… Then he’ll go to the distributors, and they will either accept what he is offering or not,” Curran said. Only then, Curran explained, can a movie physically make its way to Spring St.
At the same time, a certain amount of flexibility is required to keep the theater’s programming alive. The timeline with booking movies greatly varies. Some screenings, such as the yearlong Social Justice Film series in partnership with the Davis Center, are set far in advance. Other movies are spur-of-the-moment decisions that suddenly work with national timing. An example of this was with Love, Simon, a film that Images decided to screen within a day. “[With] Love, Simon, a lot of people were talking about it [as] the first major film from a major studio that was a high school romantic comedy with a gay character right up front,” Jones said. “We had the opportunity, and it actually wasn’t showing anywhere nearby.”
For Jones and Curran, another priority for selecting movies is variety. To meet this objective, the two directors said they try to zoom out to get a fuller idea of what a month, a season or quarter at Images looks like with genres and topics of films. They never show two similar films back-to-back. “When you look at the overall nature of the films, we show … American indies, some documentaries, some foreign language films and collaborations,” Jones said.
Movie selection changes by season as well. Through winter to early spring, Images’ programming included Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Call Me by Your Name. All of these films had picked up significant buzz and critical acclaim throughout awards season. The timing of these selections for Images was unsurprisingly deliberate.
“Awards season at the end of the year is one of the busiest times of the year for us. Those films are getting so much more attention that we’re able to ride the wave of these films being more in people’s minds,” Jones said. Such films check off two of the theater’s important criteria – quality and growing attention.
Beyond awards season, however, Curran and Jones strive to adapt to other national and social currents. Curran provided some examples. Despite the popularity of movie director Woody Allen, Images recently made the decision to not show his movies anymore due to sexual assault allegations against the director.
Sometimes, Images receives ideas from outside groups reflective of what they’d like to see on screen, especially regarding pressing social concerns. In one such instance, Images screened a local filmmaker’s documentary, entitled Voices for Recovery: Building a Recovery Community, about the opioid crisis in the Berkshires.
Local interests are another element that Images tries to prioritize. Every November, the anniversary of Images, the theater will showcase a silent film and bring in live music in celebration of the yearly milestone. This annual event is particularly popular with the local crowd. “It’s not just showing a movie; it’s showing a movie here at Images and directly tapping into the history that the theater has,” Jones said.
Curran and Jones have developed a good sense of when a movie will be a hit, but ultimately, it is still a variable process. “Every movie is different. Even if it checks off certain boxes … it’s still its own thing. This might have worked in the past, but will it work in the same way? It’s really hard to predict sometimes,” Curran said.
Jones concurred. “The status quo is always changing a little bit,” he said.
From the cinephile looking for the next film of elevated aesthetic and intellectual value to the casual student seeking to broaden their cinematic horizons, audiences at Images are comprised of a variety of people with different interests, tastes and histories. So, above all else, Curran and Jones try to create programming that captures the varied experiences of individual lives.
“I think cinema is such a powerful tool for generating empathy,” Curran said. “I think it is really important to step outside your comfort zone with what movies you see… To be able to kind of get a window inside someone else’s perspective and get to try on someone else’s life for 90 minutes or so – that’s so powerful.”