Tisbury Marketplace theater proposed for Martha’s Vineyard Film Society

It's "Talking business, Take One, Scene One," for Martha's Vineyard Film Society president Richard Paradise, left, and developer and architect Sam Dunn at the Tisbury Marketplace site that both hope will be home to a theater for the film society. — Photo by Steve Myrick

A proposal to build a theater at Tisbury Marketplace that would be leased long-term by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) is on the drawing board.

Reid “Sam” Dunn, Tisbury Marketplace’s architect and developer, and MVFS board president Richard Paradise are working out the final details. Mr. Paradise estimates that MVFS, a non-profit 501(c) (3) organization, needs to raise between $200,000 to $350,000 dollars to bring the project to fruition.

The two men discussed their preliminary plans for the project with The Times in a recent meeting at Saltwater Restaurant, which is co-owned by Mr. Dunn and partners.

Mr. Dunn said he would design and build the theater building on the last commercial lot at Tisbury Marketplace, in the empty corner slot between the two wings of the L-shaped development, next to Rocco’s Family Style Italian Restaurant.

“I can’t think of more perfect spot on the Island to put the home of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society,” Mr. Paradise told The Times. “We have a builder and designer who wants to do this for the community, a property that’s already commercially zoned and available, a busy marketplace that already has parking, and a downtown location close to the ferry terminal.”

Although admittedly an ambitious goal, Mr. Dunn said, “We hope to be open next summer, or by the time of the film festival in September of 2012.”

A sneak preview

The MVFS would be responsible for the build-out of the interior and theater equipment. Mr. Dunn said the two-story theater building would likely include a lobby with concessions, a café that serves light meals, a lounge, and a 200-seat theater with a stage area in front of the screen, for a total of about 3,500 square-feet. A catwalk over the café would lead to second-floor offices.

Mr. Paradise said the MVFS envisions operating the theater seven days a week from 7 to 9 pm, so as not to interfere with parking and activities by the other businesses. Although Tisbury Marketplace has 135 parking spaces out front, Mr. Dunn said he would incorporate a rear entrance to the theater so that spaces behind the building would be used as the primary parking area.

“We see it as a positive extension of activities on Beach Road and think the theater will enhance what’s already going on in the area,” Mr. Paradise said.

Among the proposed theater’s features, he is especially excited about installing Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) certified equipment. Since all new films are now released in DCI format, Mr. Paradise said the film society is forced to wait until they become available in an inferior DVD format after their theatrical run.

The new theater would include the latest in DCI projectors, which would enable the film society to bring films to the Island when they are in limited release in New York or Boston, Mr. Paradise said.

The stage in front of the movie screen would be used by speakers and for question and answer sessions after screenings, he added.

Mr. Paradise emphasized that the MVFS does not intend to compete with commercial theaters on the Island.

“The programming will stay within the lines of what we’ve offered over the past 10 years,” he said. “We’re not going to play Harry Potter or big studio releases; we’ll offer documentaries, films about the environment, small independents’ films, foreign language films. Our members and audiences and audience have come to look to us for that alternative content.”

Mr. Paradise said the film society plans to continue to collaborate with other Island nonprofits, as well, to provide programming about education, farming, social services, and the environment.

Behind the scenes

The MVFS has shown over 700 films since it was founded in 2002 and now averages a screening a week. The organization currently has about 500 members and annual admissions of over 12,000, including attendees at the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival hosted by the MVFS every year since 2006.

Mr. Paradise said he and Mr. Dunn began working together about four years ago when MVFS started hosting filmmakers’ dinners at Saltwater Restaurant, which is co-owned by Mr. Dunn and partners.

Over the years, although most of the MVFS screenings take place at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven, many other screenings are held at venues all over the Island. Each requires the set up of a temporary projector and sound system.

Although Mr. Paradise has long considered the possibility of a permanent home for the film society, he said he was caught off-guard when Mr. Dunn broached the theater proposal to him last winter.

“He came to present the idea to me, and I said wow,” Mr. Paradise said. “I was really taken aback. I had never considered that space, because I didn’t know it existed. He had that vision.”

“Quite honestly, this project turns me on,” Mr. Dunn added. “I can’t think of a better use for space.”

From concept to opening night

He and Mr. Paradise have been hashing out the details ever since. Both of them recognize that there are many steps, and possibly a few hurdles to overcome in going from vacant space to art house.

Mr. Paradise figures the capital improvement costs will run from $200,000 to $350,000, based on estimates he received in the last few weeks. However, as he recognizes, a lot can change in a year.

“A public/private partnership can work beautifully, but both sides have to deliver,” Mr. Paradise said. “Sam has to make sure he can build the building so that his investors are satisfied with their return on investment, and the film society has to raise the money to outfit the space as we need to, to get it up and running to operate as a legitimate full-time nonprofit film center.”

To that end, Mr. Paradise said he and the other eight MVFS board members would begin discussions about fundraising, which is new ground for the all-volunteer group.

“I know it will take more than just a summer, but I think we can get a starting point and present our situation to both seasonal and year-round residents this summer, and hopefully capture their interest,” Mr. Paradise said. “We want to tell our members first, before starting a general pledge campaign.”

Although he knows how to run a nonprofit organization from a business standpoint, Mr. Paradise said he has never done fundraising for MVFS and would enlist the help of a committee of key supporters who share his enthusiasm for the project.

Tisbury Marketplace updates

In the meantime, Mr. Dunn is looking at the construction and building aspect of the project, and issues such as permitting, sewer flow allotment, and review by Tisbury town boards and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

He is no stranger to the town’s permitting process, or to DRI review by the MVC. He and a closely held partnership developed and opened Tisbury Marketplace in 1984. The Marketplace’s spaces were individually purchased as condominiums through the Tisbury Marketplace Condominium Association (TMCA) formed in 1989. Mr. Dunn opened Saltwater Restaurant in 2008. He also developed and owns the Woodland Business Center on State Road.

Last October, after a yearlong review as a development of regional impact (DRI), the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) unanimously approved his permit application to build a new two-story building totaling 5,700 square feet, on a grassy parcel overlooking Lagoon Pond at Tisbury Marketplace.

In May, the TMCA unit owners voted unanimously in favor of an agreement with Mr. Dunn and the Ferryboat Village Partnership that included a revised site plan. To enhance views of Lagoon Pond from the property’s public areas, Mr. Dunn agreed to the condominium association’s request to move the building back 18 feet. He also relocated several parking spaces that were close to the pond to the rear of the building, at the request of the Tisbury Conservation Commission.

The association also agreed to the theater project, pending review and approval by permitting entities, and an easement for a multiple-use path across the lawn area bordering the Lagoon Pond.

Mr. Dunn presented the Tisbury Marketplace building site modification to the MVC’s Land Use Planning Committee (LUPC) on June 27. He also discussed his preliminary plans with MVFS for the theater project, in advance of the formal review process the project would undergo as a DRI.

Based on the LUPC’s recommendation from the meeting, the MVC voted on July 7 that the building site modification did not require further review. Mr. Dunn said this week he expects construction to start in the fall.