Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Moviegoers watch "Everything Everywhere All at Once" at Cornell Cinema on Sunday Sept. 4.

September 7, 2022

Behind the Scenes at Cornell Cinema

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Students walking through Willard Straight Hall recently may have noticed a familiar scent wafting up from the bottom floor — fresh popcorn from Cornell Cinema. 

After several semesters of scaled back capacity and a closed concession stand, the Cinema, which screens films five to seven nights a week, is back in full operation for the fall semester. According to cinema manager and acting director Douglas McLaren ’05, the theatre’s operations are going strong, with nearly full, 340-seat screenings of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” on Labor Day weekend.

Tickets cost $7.50 for undergraduate students, and an All-Access Pass that allows admission to films for a full academic year is available for $30.

“It’s pretty much coming back to normal,” McLaren said. “Our screening schedule and staffing levels are pretty close to what we were doing pre-pandemic.” 

This is despite the theatre being in a period of transition, according to head projectionist and technical supervisor Matthew Hidy. Internally, Mary Fessenden, director for 27 years, left the role in July and new director Molly Ryan will assume the position on Sept. 21.

From the small projection booth overlooking the theatre, Hidy manages the Cinema’s projectors. Two 35 millimeter projectors and a digital cinema projector sit inside the booth, while two 16 millimeter projectors are positioned on the balcony. 

“As an archival venue that screens repertory films as well as first and second round cinema and experimental film, we try to accommodate every single format that can come our way,” Hidy said.

Hidy also described the quick operation that goes into projecting films at the theatre. Due to the projection setup, 35mm reels can only hold 20 minutes of runtime, so a projectionist must change over from one projector to the other multiple times during one film, cleaning and threading the projector that’s not currently playing the film while making sure that the movie stays in focus on the screen.

“It’s definitely an active process,” Hidy said. “It’s kind of a dance going back and forth.”

To McLaren, one of the most exciting upcoming films this semester is the documentary film “The Janes,” which covers a group of women who facilitate illegal abortions in Chicago prior to the Roe v. Wade ruling. The documentary, which will be shown on Oct. 13, will also feature a panel discussion with directors Tia Lessin ’86 and Emma Pildes.

The Cinema frequently brings in filmmakers to discuss their work — which can be a challenge to manage.

“Every night is its own special thing,” McLaren said. “And when you throw in bringing in a filmmaker, coordinating their travel…when you expand that out to 12 different guests over the course of the semester, it gets pretty busy on top of nightly screenings.” 

Early planning for the spring semester has already begun, owing to the length of time it takes to coordinate the film and visitor schedule. Next semester, McLaren hopes to host experimental filmmakers Christopher Harris and Courtney Stephens, show an Iranian cinema series and present the works of French filmmaker Jean Eustache.   

“We’re looking at what films are working here, who’s responding to the films that we’ve programmed,” McLaren said. “It takes several months to put things together.”

The process of obtaining films to be played is bolstered by the Cinema’s positive relationship with film archives and studios, according to Hidy. It has had the privilege of being lent films from the likes of the Academy Film Archive and the Museum of Modern Art. 

“It’s a very long process of developing a relationship with these lending institutions,” Hidy said. “It’s by the process of keeping a projection booth that’s clean and safe to bring rare materials into, as well as having very carefully calibrated machinery.”

Hidy stated that one of the films he’s most looking forward to showing is the original print of the Dutch film “A Question of Silence” on Oct. 14, noting that viewing an original print is a unique and satisfying experience.

McLaren encouraged students to send in suggestions for films to be played at the Cinema in the future, saying that suggestion cards are available at the theatre and that moviegoers can also send in recommendations via social media. He expressed how much he enjoys showing films that students enjoy. 

“Selecting a film, screening it here, and having the student body come watch it and experience and react to it. When that all goes well, it’s a really wonderful experience,” McLaren said.