December 18, 2014
   
Community, Corporate Support Creates a Win for Nonprofit Cinema

By Andrea Decof

Faced with foreclosure in 1988, Images Cinema was reborn as a nonprofit community theater dedicated to exploring film as an art form, source of entertainment, and educational tool — and today only charges $4 a ticket.

With strong community support, a board of directors, and a 400-member base, the Williamstown theater, founded in 1916, now operates as a 200-seat, single-screen independent.

It screens current independent and art films, as well as foreign and classic films and special features. Operating 362 days a year, the theater offers a weekly selection of films which “impact filmmaking and our culture.” From the Kids First! Film Club to its over-85-gets-in-free policy, Images caters to cineastes of all ages.

But at $4 a head, how does Images Cinema stay in business? Personal memberships, corporate backing, and community support are key.

Viewers who buy a $50 individual annual membership — $85 for a couple — get the $4 discounted ticket prices for all films and special events.

"We listen to patrons"

According to Executive Director Sandra Thomas, “we listen to our patrons and bring in movies they want to see.” In this small community setting, Thomas and her staff take the pulse of their audience, both informally and with surveys, and respond to what they hear. They also partner with local causes to bring special showings to the theater, like a recent screening of a documentary on the AIDS pandemic sponsored by the Williams College Global AIDS Campaign Group.

With her nonprofit arts management background, Thomas, the cinema’s only full-time staffer, uses her marketing skills to build new revenue.

She notes that it’s “a challenge working in this small market,” but she’s doing something right; since she started four years ago, as membership has doubled.

Knowing one’s audience is a critical factor; special events are designed for special audiences, such as kids, college students, and seniors. Another is understanding the way film distributors work, and avoiding the highest rental fee structures. Running first-runs later in their run, for example, avoids competition with the multiplexes and helps keep the budget in check.

Part of Images’ mission is to “use film as an educational tool,” Thomas says. The theater works with Williams College to screen films for classes and special interest groups. It develops media literacy programs for the elementary school, and brings unique educational opportunities to the community, as with recent screenings of films on Iraq.

Strong corporate backing is another positive. Local businesses underwrite programs. Williams College provides support, as well as frequent patrons. Faculty use the theater for screenings for their classes; students present final projects and participate in special events like the “24 hour Video Goose Chase,” a competition to make a 5-minute film in 24 hours, with prizes awarded for the best entries.

Volunteers Are Part of the Picture

Volunteers are also big part of the picture at Images. A cadre of 50 active volunteers handles everything from selling tickets and popcorn to cleaning the theater and maintaining the website. This kind of support helps maintain what the Images website proudly calls a “metropolitan-quality art house” showcasing “Berkshire County’s reputation for world-class culture.” The website itself is used to good advantage, promoting current and upcoming films with thumbnail sketches, reviews, and movie database links.

As Images Cinema approaches its tenth anniversary as a nonprofit, Thomas says the board is redefining its goals and objectives for fundraising. Last year the cinema started an annual appeal, in addition to smaller fundraisers, to help address leaky roofs and plumbing problems.

While Thomas says the struggle for financial solvency is “a constant battle,” it hasn’t been a deterrent. A major issue before the cinema now is whether to update to digital equipment, a significant financial investment.

As for maintaining community support, Thomas notes, “It’s important to know that we’re serving our constituency and moving in the right direction. Our members are all a part of a community — students, summer residents, people from the tri-state area — who like to gather to watch and talk about film. We have become a stable part of the community, and knowing that we’re not going to close our doors is important. Investing in us is an investment in their future.”

It all translates into a win-win scenario, when a small and diverse community can rally to breathe new life into a beloved community institution. Images Cinema is on track with a good formula for fulfilling its mission, building and maintaining community support, and bringing in enough income and donations to make it a viable operation. Pass the popcorn.

To learn more about Images Cinema, click on www.imagescinema.org.

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