The iconic, art deco marquee of the Coolidge Corner Theater has presided over Brookline since 1933, drawing in cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. In its more than eighty years of operation, the screens have shown a range of films from Modern Times to Get Out. However, it is not just the smell of popcorn that has lured moviegoers through the double doors for nearly a century. In fact, the Coolidge Corner Theater has also become a fixture of the both intellectual and compassionate community of Brookline.
CEO and Executive Director of the Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation, Katherine Tallman, was introduced to the theater when she first moved to Boston about thirty years ago. She was working in finance at the time, but found comfort in the old building.
“I really describe the theater, and still do, as my first friend in Boston,” Tallman said. “That’s where I spent my Friday and Saturday nights, and it really made me feel at home right away.”
Seeking to have greater involvement than her role as a patron, Tallman eventually joined the Board of Directors and filled the role of Interim Executive Director before being promoted to her current position three years ago.
“It’s certainly the most fulfilling role I’ve had in my career,” Tallman said.
As Executive Director, Tallman oversees the many diverse events that happen at the Coolidge. Programs include Science on Screen, which consist of introductions by scientists about various topics regarding the upcoming film; Cinema Jukebox, combining music and film; and Big Screen Classics, where vintage films get a chance to be replayed on the silver screen.
Theater Operations Director Andrew Thompson says that he feels a sense of pride regarding the broad range of films and events housed at the Coolidge. Thompson attributes much of the variety to the theater being a non-profit organization.
“It’s not like you have to show all this content and make this much money from it. We have flexibility to do interesting things,” Thompson said. “We’re our own entity, we’re not indebted to corporate structure.”
With this freedom and distance from mainstream film, the theater established itself as an active center for not only entertainment, but also discussion and change.
“We have a mission to entertain, inform and engage in building vital communities through film culture, and that’s what we do,” Tallman said.
The sense of community is clear, not only through of the constantly filled movie theaters, but also through the monetary support provided by patrons. Twenty five percent of the theater’s revenue come from memberships and donations.
Senior Océanne Fry and her family recently became Coolidge members and Fry often attends film screenings once or twice a week.
“I absolutely love the Coolidge, and I’m very grateful to live in this town where I have such easy access to it,” Fry said. “They screen such incredible films that bring incredible indie masterpieces to us, and it just has such a vintage, cozy neighborhood feel that makes me love going there.”
The Coolidge also broadcasts actual film – using 35mm film reels – once or twice a week. This has created a distinction from mainstream movie theaters.
“There’s a huge shift in the industry from film to digital,” Thompson said. “We’re very lucky that we are able to keep our film projection and we are kind of ahead of the curve on getting digital projectors.”
This commitment to film and the availability of film technology in the theater has provided exclusive opportunities, such as when acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino released his 2015 film The Hateful Eight on 70mm film, which not every mainstream theater can screen.
“We were able to show that, so we were one of the few theaters in the area that could do that,” Thompson said, “which was a huge extra bonus and a draw. It did amazingly well for us.”
The Coolidge does not store all of their films in the building. Instead, they have a partnership with the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, which aids with preservation. According to Tallman, when a theater has a good reputation when it comes to the safety of the film itself, that is appreciated by the film distributors.
“We are known for treating those films with great care and sensitivity, so if there’s a rare print of a film, we’re likely to get it when somebody else might not get it,” Tallman said.
The Coolidge has, however, experienced financial difficulties in the past; large renovation projects in the early 2000s have expanded the theater’s lobby and screening capabilities as well as some restorative work. Future plans for renovations include an expanded lobby and additional theaters. According to Tallman, the process of receiving films has grown easier once the theater reached financial stability.
“They begged them, ‘Just give us a movie,’ because our financial viability was so uncertain,” Tallman said. “This is a huge change. Now we have distributors banging our door down, saying, ‘Take my film!’”
At its core, the theater’s greatest commitment is to provide a safe space for the Brookline community where they can create their own cinematic memories.
It is the same, warm sentiment that has kept long term staff like Tallman and Thompson involved in the theater for so many years.
“All that laughter, all those tears, all those shared experiences. I think you really sense that when you’re in there,” Tallman said.
For Fry, having the Coolidge nearby has helped her develop her passion for film and her desire to experience the world around her.
”For about the past year I’ve seen almost every film they’ve had and have absolutely loved the vast majority of them,” Fry said. “I have grown to greatly appreciate the world and its many cultures through them, which I think is immensely valuable.”