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Elegant Curtain Still Rises At Cinestudio

Tom Condon

March 29, 2009

When I moved to Hartford more than three decades ago, it was to a big house on Fairfield Avenue with five other guys. I quickly discerned two great advantages to the neighborhood: The White Swan on Park Street and Cinestudio at Trinity College.

The Swan lives only in happy, if hazy, memory. Cinestudio is still with us, and still one of the coolest places in Greater Hartford. I draw your attention to it in the hope of helping it stay that way.

Cinestudio, as many of you know, is the excellent independent film theater located in a big auditorium in the college's Clement Chemistry Building. It was founded by students in 1970, and two of them, James Hanley and Peter McMorris, still help run it. It shows all kinds of great movies: second-run, foreign, classic, indies, documentary, festival hits, etc. "Casablanca" and "Frost/Nixon" were there recently; tonight it's the area premiere of the French animated film "Azur and Asmar" and the comedy "Ready? OK!"

Some film-loving friends called me to say that the theater was in a bind. I arranged to meet with Hanley. He and I, along with volunteer Christine McMorris and board member Angie Wolf, both Trinity graduates, met in the 485-seat auditorium. The auditorium is a remarkable achievement; it recreates much of the ambience of an old-time movie palace. It has a balcony, movie seats, an art deco look and one of the few if not the only working movie curtains left in the state, an "Austrian shade" that draws vertically.

The situation here is not precipitously bleak, and it's nice to be able to say that about an arts organization. However, Cinestudio faces two challenges that must be met.

The first has to do with major renovations at the college in the past couple of years. The reconstruction of the "Long Walk" complex closed some entrances and made parking a bit more difficult. Some people stopped coming. The construction work was finished in the fall and is spectacular, worth a trip by itself and the entrances are open again. But people are only beginning to trickle back. "Moviegoing is a habit," Hanley said. Some people got out of the habit.

If you are one of those folks, take it from The Beatles and get back to where you once belonged. It's perfectly safe and easy, even for the most timid suburban wuss. Film fans drive there from New York, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Do it once and you've got it.

The other issue isn't as easily resolved. Cinestudio shows movies on reel-to-reel projectors. The film world is going digital. Chain theaters are moving to digital projection. Smaller production companies are making films digitally, or with many fewer prints.

Digital technology is evolving quickly. It is not yet standardized, but it will be. In short, Hanley said, "The future is digital." That doesn't mean Cinestudio is doomed, but it presents a challenge. Wolf said the theater has rented digital equipment on some occasions. But a top-of-the-line digital projector could run as much as $200,000, an amount not currently in the cash register.

Other costs have also risen astronomically. Hanley said that in 1970, they might pay $30 a week in shipping costs. Now the cost of overnight shipment of a single film back and forth from California is about $340, and a studio archive might be the only source of the print of a classic film.

Many think Cinestudio is part of Trinity, but although it gets great support from the college it is actually an independent nonprofit. It's staffed by 60 student and community volunteers, who take part in the decision-making. The theater seeks grants and has a "Friends of Cinestudio" group of nearly 400 supporters (join at cinestudio.org).

It also has alumni. Nearly a dozen former volunteers now working in the film industry in Los Angeles, including a kid who had seen only three films when he got to school in 1968.

Long story short: His girlfriend took him to Cinestudio and his life changed. He swept floors and took tickets in trade to watch more movies. Stephen Gyllenhaal went on to be come a director, marry a screenwriter, Naomi Foner, and father two very talented actors, Jake and Maggie.

So Hanley and his board have cards to play. With digital equipment becoming obsolete the moment it's installed, they may be able to induce the donation of a used projector that serves their purpose.

This institution is important. Great films were not made to be watched on a phone or a computer. There is a magic to watching them in the dark before a big screen, with other people. That is what's kept Hanley at the theater for all these years.

There's also the content. The multiplexes have so much dreck. A whole world of great film would pass us by were it not for Cinestudio, Real Art Ways and a handful of other venues.

The economy is playing havoc with our need for delight. It got the Connecticut Opera. Draw the line on Zion Street. Go to the movies.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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