The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts shut its doors on a day that suited the mood.
“We closed on Friday the 13th,” Coolidge Corner Theater marketing and education coordinator Wesley Emblidge tells Boxoffice Pro. That’s March 13, to be exact—roughly ten days before Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker instituted a mandatory shutdown of all non-essential businesses in the state.
Now, like every other movie theater (bar a few drive-ins) across the U.S., Coolidge Corner—a non-profit, four-screen arthouse theater whose programming includes a mixture of first-run independent movies and repertory screenings—is scrambling to adapt its programming to a virtual format. To test the waters, it has modified its popular Coolidge Education series for at-home consumption.
For the last ten years, Coolidge Education has been a cornerstone of programming at the theater. Launched in 2010 with a local teacher who taught multi-week classes on film-related topics once or twice a year, the program expanded after Emblidge took the reins in 2017. In an effort to cater to cineasts who weren’t able to commit to the longer format, in 2018 Coolidge Corner introduced one-night seminars on films that were screening as part of the theater’s repertory programming. Now, those seminars are now being held online. And according to Emblidge, it has been an unexpectedly smooth transition.
“It was actually surprisingly easy to adapt this model for virtual, because the structure is pretty much the same,” he says. “The big difference…is people going off and finding the film on their own.”
Traditionally, Coolidge Education seminars kicked off with a guest lecture on the film being shown, followed by a post-screening discussion. Since the series moved online, lectures have been pre-recorded, and attendees have been watching the films on their own before re-convening for a live discussion over Zoom.
Since moving to the online format, the Q&A element in particular has become significantly more complicated. Attendees are invited to submit questions in advance with a Google Form, but they can also ask questions during the conversation using Zoom’s built-in chat function. By virtually “raising their hand,” they also have the option of weighing in via video.
Partially due to the more cumbersome Q&A process, these post-screening discussion have been lasting around an hour—substantially longer than they would have gone in person. That said, Emblidge notes there are benefits to the online format; for one thing, they don’t have to worry about vacating theaters to make room for the next show. “That’s one of the bigger challenges with the education program in person in general that this interestingly kind of alleviates,” he says.
Though the online format is less than ideal, Emblidge has found silver linings. First and foremost, Coolidge Education is no longer bound to holding seminars around whatever repertory programming the theater has lined up, meaning they now have the freedom to choose from a much wider selection of films. It has also allowed them to line up guest lecturers whom they had previously struggled to secure.
“Some of the people that we’re working with now, they’re people that we’ve been trying to get at the theater for awhile and the timing’s never worked out,” says Emblidge. “But now they’re all at home.”
Coolidge Corner kicked off the online series with a thematically appropriate choice: Alfred Hitchcock’s claustrophobic 1954 classic Rear Window, which takes place almost entirely within a single room. With seminars typically being held in a space that holds just 43 people, Emblidge was delighted when the Rear Window seminar drew over 200 attendees—a more than four-fold increase. The follow-up seminar on Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, meanwhile, attracted over 100.
As successful as it’s been so far, Emblidge anticipates some drop-off as more and more virtual events become available. “I think the further we get into this, the more competition there is for these types of live events, as more and more organizations start to figure this out,” he says.
The seminars are just one part of the game plan to keep the Coolidge Corner afloat during the shutdown. Like most exhibitors, the theater is currently promoting memberships, gift cards, and donations, and it’s continuing to screen first-run movies through Kino Lorber’s Kino Marquee initiative. Despite these efforts, the theater was recently forced to furlough many of its part-time workers after paying them for nearly a month post-closure, a decision Emblidge says was made easier by the passage of the CARES Act, which provides expanded unemployment assistance to employees who have been furloughed or laid off.
Coolidge Corner is looking for other ways to continue fostering a sense of community—and perhaps drum up some extra revenue—during the closure. “The education thing has been a really good way to start figuring out this model,” says Emblidge. “And now it’s, ‘Okay, we’ve got these and we’re gonna keep doing them, but how can we broaden this?’”
Emblidge is now engaged in an effort to gear virtual events to Coolidge Corner’s “robust” midnight movie community. On Saturday (April 18), the theater hosted an Instagram Live discussion with Greg Sestero, star of The Room and author of the 2013 memoir The Disaster Artist (later made into the 2017 film starring James Franco). This Saturday (April 25), the Coolidge’s popular horror movie drag pre-show Haus of Oni (hosted by drag queen Akira Oni) will return with a Twitch-streamed pre-show for the 1987 Clive Barker classic Hellraiser.
Moving forward, Coolidge Education has a number of other seminars in the works. The series continued last Thursday (April 16) with a discussion around Peter Bogdonavich’s 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc?, while another on Ida Lupino’s noir classic The Hitch-Hiker is slated to take place on April 23. Other films on the schedule include Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (April 30), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (May 7), and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (May 14).
“We’re still seeing [that] people are excited about them and really enjoying them. There’s plenty of people who sign up for every single one of these,” says Emblidge. “So we’re going to keep doing them unless people decide they don’t like them anymore.”