Half-birthdays are generally ho-hum occasions, but when it comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, exceeding expectations are fast becoming the norm.
Last week the Film Center received its first multi-year donation from philanthropist Marilyn Meyerhoff of Baltimore. Ms. Meyerhoff is an established patron of the arts in her home city. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra theatre is named after her late husband Joseph and she is on the board of the American Visionary Art Museum. Mr. Paradise would not disclose the amount of the donation but in recognition of her gift, Ms. Meyerhoff received naming rights to the main theatre space. This honor was listed in the development packet as a $200,000 opportunity.
Part of the gift will help the Film Center achieve its capital campaign goal, with the remainder going toward future operating costs for the film center, Richard Paradise, founder of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, said in an interview on Tuesday.
“It makes it easier for us to be sustainable and continue to do our mission,” he said.
In the seven months since the 177-seat theater at the Tisbury Marketplace opened its doors, it has screened over 60 movies and surpassed projected attendance numbers for the fall season by about five per cent. Serving as the main event stage for the annual Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, the film center helped boosted revenues for the festival by approximately 45 per cent. There have been parties for New Year’s Eve, Oscar night and sporting events, ongoing screening collaborations with other nonprofits such as the Vineyard Conservation Society and multiple concerts by The Daytrippers. The eventual Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man showed 27 times due to high demand — perhaps playing a part in film star Rodriquez’s Cinderella journey from unknown musician to Academy Awards star.
“As I look at it and see how it all came about, it’s sort of surreal,” Mr. Paradise said. “It’s a lot of hard work on the account of a number of hard-working individuals.”
At this time last year the Film Society had no physical home. Its weekly screenings were the result of Mr. Paradise driving analog projection equipment around the Island and setting up shop in the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Real estate developer Reid (Sam) Dunn approached Mr. Paradise in 2011 about constructing a theatre building in the Tisbury Marketplace to be leased to the Film Society for 20 years. The project was officially announced in the fall of that year and permits from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission were obtained in February 2012. After eight months of whirlwind fundraising and construction, the new theatre, which features a digital projection system, opened.
“2012 seems like a blur,” Mr. Paradise said. The Film Society needed to raise $450,000 in its capital campaign to fund construction of the center, an increase over initial estimates of $350,000. Before last week’s gift, $440,000 had already been raised.
The center has an annual operating cost of $450,000, two-thirds of which comes from earned income via ticket sales, concessions, Film Society membership dues and grants. The remainder comes from donations.
As a nonprofit, Mr. Paradise said, “We still have to fundraise. A certain portion [of the operating budget] has to come from gifts.” Future fundraising goals include increasing sponsorships and advertising, he said, but “not a lot of on-screen advertising. That doesn’t fit with the art house idea.”
Over 500 people and organizations have donated to the film center project thus far, ranging from $25 and $50 contributions to the $500 seat-naming rights (138 of the seats have been named so far) to the $15,000 naming rights for the violet curtains that hang over the screen, which were purchased by The Fledgling Fund, a film nonprofit based in New York.
“It’s the old-time movie experiences of seeing the curtains open [at the start],” Mr. Paradise said. “You don’t really get that too much anymore in commercial multiplex theaters.”
Response to the new venue has been “tremendous,” he said, with moviegoers particularly enjoying the stadium seating and Surround Sound. The cold winter brought a few days of frozen water pipes and heat pumps, Mr. Paradise said, but the “audience was very accommodating to us; some people wore their winter coats during the movie.”
“This is all learning curve stuff,” he said.
It has also been bit of a learning curve simply adjusting from screening one movie per week to showing eight films. Mr. Paradise is still the sole programmer for the Film Society, although he is now a paid employee for the first time in 10 years.
“But I love what I do,” he said. “So it’s not work, really.”
In May the Film Center will be open seven days a week (it is currently open Wednesday through Sunday) and will have to contend with the matter of parking at the Tisbury Marketplace, which up to now has “really not been so bad,” Mr. Paradise said. “We pretty much have the whole parking lot to ourselves...that will change.” The Film Society is working on improving online ticket sales and advance notifications for sold-out shows to minimize parking traffic and “meeting the needs and demands of the summer season,” he said.
Summer will also bring guest speakers, including an author speaker series, more live concerts, and a larger focus on educational programming and workshops, “fun events that we can plug into the mix of film screening to have a little more flavor in the recipe,” Mr. Paradise said.
“There’s just so much to do in the future, and it’s very exciting.”