With the fall semester almost halfway over and prelim season picking up, another season is in full swing for students: The rise of Cornell Cinema, which regularly shows films in Willard Straight theater. While the Cinema has had a successful return to full capacity after COVID-19, it has also had big internal shifts in recent months — following the departure of longtime Director Mary Fessenden in July, Molly Ryan, an experienced film curator, has taken over the role.
As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, Ryan studied history and literature, where she incorporated her love of film into her studies, exploring the medium as a historical artifact. After graduation, she worked in the education program of Harvard’s art museums, where she organized events and activities that increased public engagement.
Last year, Ryan attended a graduate program in film studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and gained experience running the Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews and the On the Rocks Arts Festival. All of these experiences led to her decision to take the director role at Cornell Cinema.
“When this opportunity at Cornell came up, it kind of combined all the best things that I’ve liked about what I’ve done in the past,” Ryan said, also noting she enjoys working with student communities and collaborating with academic researchers.
In her first two weeks as director, Ryan spent some time navigating campus and engaging with student-run activities like the annual Ag Day.
“It’s been a lot of fun to start right in the thick of the semester,” Ryan said. “I’m getting a feel for what people do here on campus and getting a chance to learn about the complexities of this university.”
Learning about students and campus culture is important to Ryan’s goals as director. Ryan wants to increase the reach of the cinema by connecting to different communities around campus by showing hockey films to fans or working with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“One of my goals as director is that every Cornell student will have an experience at the Cinema at some point,” Ryan said.
Ryan said that on Oct. 19, a screening of the silent film “Nosferatu” with live musical accompaniment will be shown at Sage Chapel. In the future, films could be shown in other unique places to expand the reach of the cinematic experience.
“I would like to think of bringing Cornell Cinema to parts of campus that might not otherwise think about engaging with the arts — that might be science labs, engineering, the hospitality school — to think creatively about how we can build those bridges through film,” Ryan said.
Keeping the cinema relevant to audiences is another of Ryan’s goals. In an age of online film streaming services, Ryan said it can be tough to draw audiences to the theater. However, by being engaged with what students want to see and offering an immersive experience, the cinema has had a successful start to this upcoming season.
“There’s always this real anxiety of whether or not people will continue to come to the movies,” Ryan said. “I think it’s really heartening so far to see that people are showing up for screenings and coming out to hear from filmmakers.”
This semester, the cinema is showing a film series called “On Demand, Without Apology: Abortion and Bodily Autonomy,” addressing the topic of abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June. The series will include a visit by Tia Lessen ’86, who will discuss her documentary film “The Janes” which tells the story of a group of abortion activists in pre-Roe v. Wade Chicago.
“I’m interested in being tuned into campus life and the concerns that students have and making sure our programming resonates with those conversations,” Ryan said.
Ryan said she wants to continue bringing filmmakers to campus, including Cornell alumni that work in the industry. On her list of dream visitors are sound designer Johnny Greenwood and her current favorite filmmaker, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. Her loftiest goal is to have Jordan Peele, whose film “Nope” is being shown in November, come to campus.
As planning for spring semester programming continues, Ryan said she is going to start conversations with faculty, researchers and students about what they’re excited to see in the cinema.
“I’m excited for this to be a place that’s an important part of the student experience,” Ryan said. “That’s a main goal for me in taking on this role: To continue to make Cornell Cinema a vital resource for communities across Cornell.”