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McCallum: The Small Silver Screen

01/26/12 7:55AM By Mary McCallum
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(Host) Attendance at traditional movie theaters is falling nationwide as more people choose to watch films at home using the latest technology. But commentator Mary McCallum sees a niche for movie lovers who still want the connection of being surrounded by an appreciative audience.

(McCallum) One of the price tags of rural living is driving. Discounting convoluted treks to the airport, almost everything we backroad folks do requires a half-hour drive, whether it's grocery shopping, getting our teeth cleaned or going to the movies. The magic number that I use as my own yardstick is twenty-five. Miles, that is.

So a few years back, to make something happen closer to home, a neighbor and I started a winter film series in our own southern Vermont town - population fourteen hundred. It was a somewhat selfish move to avoid us having to drive around in the cold and dark in search of bright lights and entertainment.

We're now in the sixth year of our small town series of black and white classic films. We use the elementary school's art room, digital equipment from the library, and folding metal chairs that double as seats for Town Meeting. Those chairs separate the men from the boys - so to speak - during the first movie of each season, when some decide they are too hard to endure, while others return the following week with pillows.

We've had as few as six show up, and a record breaking crowd of thirty. And we've learned a few things along the way: make it free, start on time, provide homemade cookies and show more comedies. Everyone who walks in the door is greeted like a long lost friend, which makes them come back again even when it's snowing. One woman brings her supper along and another brings her dog.

Surprisingly, we've had to cancel only twice in five years - Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Humphrey Bogart, got bumped to the following year because of freezing rain, then bumped again when a snowstorm hit the second year. By the third year it was a standing joke that if we tried again to show Treasure of the Sierra Madre we would cause dangerous weather conditions. It became a challenge but we got it on the third try, just like a charm.

Over the years, our small group has huddled in the dark and been transported away from our hard metal chairs by the seductive power of the silver screen, albeit a very small one attached to a snaking extension cord and speakers on the floor. We’ve watched the Birdman of Alcatraz insult prison guards with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, King Kong rampage through the jungle with Fay Wray in his fist, and a bare-chested Clark Gable in It Happened One Night - all of them relics of another time.

In 2011, theaters nationwide sold 50 million fewer tickets than the year before, most for big money blockbusters. Yet in my corner of Vermont there are four separate film series running within a fifteen-mile radius of my town, in distinctly different venues: an elementary school, a town hall, a church and an art gallery.

People still love going to the movies. And these smaller, homegrown film gatherings are one more way of keeping it local. I think of us as celluloid localvores, building community one film at a time.
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