The marquee at the corner of East Berry and Clay streets is charming and decidedly nostalgic. It's updated manually by one of the curators at Cinema Center – sometimes weekly depending on the offerings at the local theater.
With just three lines, the marquee has room for just a couple of shows – a far cry from the modern multiplex, where there might be 20 screens and movies shown in 3-D and Imax.
But despite the nostalgia, inside the theater on this warm spring night, it's “a new – and altogether different – screen excitement!!!”
The two-screen art house theater in downtown Fort Wayne is screening “Psycho.” The iconic movie from Alfred Hitchcock, opens with a romantic scene – an unmarried couple in 1960. And with that it promised to take “the audience to places it had never been before ... .”
The movie changed cinema and, in a way, that's what Art Herbig is trying to accomplish as executive director of Cinema Center.
Herbig, who is also a faculty member at Purdue University Fort Wayne, wants to change the way people think about seeing movies – or, at least, the way they view seeing movies at Cinema Center.
Take “Psycho.” The movie is celebrating its 60th anniversary, making it an unlikely candidate to get a theater screen. But Cinema Center put it on the screen as part of its Friday Night Events, where the audience is invited to engage with a film.
“We want to bring movies to Fort Wayne that spark conversations – the way you come out of a museum talking about what you saw,” Herbig says. “If you are not talking about the movie, then we did something wrong.”
But, Herbig says, the theater had gotten away from that and the public perception had changed. Cinema Center became just a place to see movies in a market that is crowded by screens. Ticket sales declined, and the board had to consider how to move forward – if at all.
Focus on mission
Derek Devine did not shy away from the hard times when he sent out an end-of-the-year letter to Cinema Center supporters and subscribers.
“We had a moment this summer. We actually floated the idea of closing the doors for good,” the board president wrote in December. “Ticket sales for 2018/2019 were abysmal. Really bad.”
Devine, who is also president of Punch Films, says that because Cinema Center screens unique films, it's not uncommon to have a dozen people in the seats.
“It has never been the mission to fill up the theater for every movie possible,” he says. “It was to show work within an art form and show the films that you can't see anywhere else.”
Still, he couldn't help but be surprised when he saw the ticket sales from 2018 and 2019.
The slowing ticket sales forced Cinema Center to reevaluate its mission and rethink how it creates community.
“We've been engaged in an identity crisis for awhile,” Herbig says. “Somewhere along the way ... at some point ... the public perception became that we're a movie theater. We're not. We're an art house.”
During a retreat, Devine says, the board came up with vision and mission statements. Creating those statements gives the board and the staff something to work from when discussing programming and events.
“When a theater is struggling a little bit, you start to worry about income,” Devine says. “And it can detract from the mission.
“We have to be about mission. When you do that, all those other things fall in line.”
There was a magical moment at the 2019 Hobnobben Film Festival.
The event, which takes place in October, is “an opportunity for unique stories to be seen in the Fort Wayne community,” says Christy Hille, Hobnobben co-chair. “We can also firmly say that the way we group the films truly does make it a singular event that won't be replicated anywhere else.”
“Festivals are also a place for storytellers to try things, to hone their craft, and to connect with other filmmakers,” adds Alix Watson, a Cinema Center board member. “What the festival brings to Fort Wayne is these stories and these storytellers. In 2019, we had more filmmakers than ever attend our festival.”
Among them was an unlikely guest: David Anspaugh, the director known for the iconic sports films “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” His attendance was a surprise – he was there as an attendee.
But he accepted an invitation to speak to filmmakers during the festival. It was a conversation, Devine says, that lasted two hours – and beyond.
The panel, among others at the film festival, was a catalyst for Friday Night Events among other ideas.
“We need to reinvent what Cinema Center means in this new world,” Devine says.
Change does not happen overnight, Herbig says, and efforts to revive Cinema Center will focus on the long term.
In an effort to rebound from low sales, Cinema Center slowly began to sprinkle in special events before the new year.
The theater held a special showcase of “The Piano” as part of the Violins of Hope program in November. Friday Night Events began in December.
“We wanted to give the curators and people inside the building the chance to make mistakes and not have those mistakes be high stakes,” Herbig says.
By spring, the events were almost weekly, showing movies like “Misery” and “Fantastic Fungi,” a documentary about the benefits of mushrooms.
The latter seems like an unlikely hit but the movie drew a sizable and engaged audience. The crowd was cheering, Devine says of his experience sitting in the two-screen theater.
“It's still a challenge. We haven't created a rousing recovery, but it is a recovery,” Devine says. “We're absolutely coming out of where we were six months.”
And while the outbreak of COVID-19 is an unexpected challenge that has shut down screenings at Cinema Center for several weeks, Devine says that the staff and team will use the time productively – to think about these collaborations and to organize fundraisers.
“We're in this for the long term,” Herbig says. “To be the art house cinema in Fort Wayne for the foreseeable future.”