A gateway drug for arthouse: The Brattle Theatre

The Brattle Theatre’s 12-foot-tall, blank screen crackles to life as Warner Brothers’ shield logo appears, accompanied by tooting of trumpets playing the Looney Toons theme. The audience of mostly children and parents sit near the front, ensuring the smaller kids have a chance to see the animated action.

The Cambridge theater, a staple of film restoration and cinema in New England since 1953, shows a Looney Toons marathon during one week every February. The marathon week always lands at a time when many children enjoy their school vacations. The marathon was started by the predecessors of the current administration of Ivy Moylan and Ned Hinkle. Moylan has been the co-owner and executive director of the theater since 2001, when she and creative director Hinkle took over the lease.

Ivy Moylan prepared for their third day of cartoons. Her staff rushed here and there, often animatedly telling stories during preparation in the back room. In a loose blue and white vertically striped button-up, Ivy couldn’t help but get excited about the coming presentation.

“Even if it’s not a ‘special event,’” Moylan said, “it is a special event, because it’s not your normal movie theater.”

On Feb. 21, a Tuesday, a father in the audience, Doug, was able to bring his young son Roland to the Looney Toons screening. Roland was thankful for the experience, and Doug was glad to show his son a classic.

“It’s nice that they set it up during vacation week,” Doug said. “It’s a great place to bring my son.”

Courtesy of cambridge.com

As a “calendar house,” the Brattle utilizes holidays and culturally significant days to curate fun film experiences for their audience.

“You want to create a program that could potentially get people interested in coming out,” Moylan said.

Curation is all about creating a certain vibe through the figurative lense of film. Whether that means showing classic holiday films during Christmas, campy horror titles in October, or Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on Mother’s Day, curation takes dedication and an intimate knowledge of film. Curation has a lot to do with its reception from an audience as well.

Film curation must do two things, according to the Film Festival Research Network, a website created by film scholars Marijke de Valck and Skadi Loist. First, the curator must create a program that can “highlight, promote and contextualize” a film. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, the curator must remain dependent on the audience’s reaction. Without the audience, there is no program.

Anna Feder, director of programming at Emerson College’s Bright Lights, curates experiences with direct input from the audience after screenings, in the form of discussions. In programming for Bright Lights, Feder said that a quarter of the showings are directly related to Emerson, often showing shorts and features made by alums, students, or staff. Feder also underscored the importance of balancing the needs of the students, as well as the public, with a wide variety of films.

The Brattle, in its outreach, has worked with film festivals like Independent Film Festival Boston (IFF Boston) to solicit sneak previews, and Boston Underground Film Festival. The latter of which Anna Feder has experience with, specifically at the Brattle. Her work brought her to the Brattle between 2005 and 2011, before moving on to Emerson

Like Feder’s Bright Lights, the Brattle has had to distinguish itself.

“We view ourselves as a gateway drug for arthouses,” Moylan quipped. Unlike other theaters typically found in museums or colleges, which feel inaccessible for certain audiences and cultures, the Brattle is a place for every walk of life. “We work hard for this to be an inclusive and open space.”

Ivy is proud of the accessibility of the theater. It has a concession stand, sells popcorn, and showcases trailers, like a traditional theater.

“It means that we are accessible to people who feel comfortable finding a less than traditional movie theater,” she lauded.

The Brattle tries to spice up every showing, from screenings of Blue Velvet, in which the crew passed out baggies containing a fake ear and ants, to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, where they handed out bubblegum. Not only do they bring in audiences, but they are culturally important and equally exciting viewing experiences for acclimated cinephiles and appreciative fans. It is a theater that succeeds at curation because of how dutifully it dotes on it’s audience.

The theater even takes into account when younger kids have their school vacation, so that they can experience classic cartoons with their parents.

“That’s all folks” scrawls across the cartoon’s final panel. The lights raise, along with a grade school aged girl with a popcorn bucket on her head, smiling ear to ear, a possible future attendee of this historic theater.

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