The creation of the Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation (MVTF) reads like a Hollywood script — man gets a crazy idea, he ignores naysayers and long odds and embarks on a perilous journey, and, with the help of people inspired by his determination, turns his crazy idea into reality.
It’s about a year to the day since Mark Snider, co-owner of Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown, filed the incorporation papers for the nonprofit MVTF. The papers stated the mission of the MVTF was “to rejuvenate and restore Martha’s Vineyard’s independent movie theaters”; specifically, to resurrect the long-dormant, century-old Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven and Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs.
Like any good drama, the script also had a ticking clock — Mr. Snider’s public statement that both theaters would be up and running by summer. He had four months to negotiate leases for both theaters, put contractors under contract, install new seating and state-of-the-art projection equipment, and raise $1 million dollars.
A summer slate of films also had to be booked.
Enter Martha’s Vineyard Film Society executive director Richard Paradise, taking on a strong supporting role, advising Mr. Snider and locking in movies for the MVTF while running the Martha’s Film Center.
With a groundswell of support from Islanders and seasonal residents who contributed anywhere from $5 to five-figure sums, and an active board of directors that included Vineyard luminaries singer Carly Simon and author Geraldine Brooks, both theaters flickered to life last summer. The Capawock opened on May 29 with a premovie concert by Ms. Simon and son Ben and daughter Kate. The Strand opened a month later.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on such an exciting roller coaster ride,” Mr. Snider told The Times in a recent interview. “What was so heartening was the level of support from all walks of Vineyard life. People gave five dollars to many, many thousands of dollars. These are special buildings, and people came out to support them.”
“The renovation and the equipment upgrades were obviously a huge success,” Mr. Paradise told The Times. “The ambiance of coming to the movies in these historic theaters really seemed to resonate with the patrons, as we hoped it would. We had a tremendous amount of positive energy throughout the summer and into the autumn.”
Mr. Snider said the unusually sunny New England summer made breaking even even more challenging in the MVTF debut year. “It was a glorious summer,” he said. “We only had one day of rain the entire summer, and that day we sold over 800 tickets.”
Mr. Paradise agreed. “People spend the winter indoors, and when they come here for a vacation, they’re not going to see a movie they can see when they go home,” he said. “On our one rainy day, we sold out four of five shows.”
Mr. Paradise said family films fared particularly well. “‘Inside Out’ was the most popular of the bunch,” he said. “We had it on the screen for five or six weeks. ‘Spy’ was also successful. ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Star Wars’ did well, of course. ‘Trainwreck’ was a nice surprise.”
While the sunny weather dampened box office receipts, Hollywood’s offerings didn’t help. Overall attendance was down across the country last summer. “It really comes down to the movie,” Mr. Snider said. “The industry requires you to commit to a film no matter how well it does. We got stuck with ‘Terminator’ in August, at peak time, which was a terrible movie. When we showed ‘Hateful 8,’ we had 20 people, maybe. ‘Star Wars’ required us to run it for a month, but obviously that did much better.”
Mr. Snider said the short films created by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and the Vineyard Gazette were also popular with moviegoers.
Both theaters stayed open longer than planned. “The shoulder season far exceeded expectations,” Mr. Snider said. “The Strand stayed open through Columbus Day for the first time in 50 years. The Capawock didn’t go dark until last month. After Labor Day, the quality of the movies increased so much that the attendance increased over the summer films. That’s mostly the local community going. In January, we had full houses on Friday and Saturday nights when we ran ‘The Big Short.’ It was unbelievable.”
Mr. Snider said nuances to each theater became evident in the first year. “You can’t show movies at the Capawock in the afternoon, because there’s no parking,” he said. “But in the evening nothing is happening in Vineyard Haven, and there is plenty of parking. I hope that generated traffic for downtown. I think the town has needed a push for evening business, and I hope we’re a catalyst for that.”
Mr. Snider said the showtimes may be adjusted in season two. “I think we’re going to change the late shows in the summer from 9:30 to 8:30 pm, and the early show to 6:30,” he said. “That’s still being debated.”
Concessions will also be tweaked. “Everyone has an opinion on the quality of the popcorn. We’ll keep working at it,” Mr. Snider said. “When there’s a kids’ movie, we always sell out of food.”
Initially, the mandate for the two theaters included live music performances and lectures. Mr. Paradise was circumspect about expanding into those areas next summer. ”How many people are going to go to a historical lecture on a sunny afternoon?” he asked, rhetorically.
“We’re still wide-open to anyone who wants to put on live music performances there,” Mr. Snider said. “The theaters are there to be used by the community. If people have strong feelings about what they want to see, they should get in touch with Richard.”
“Every penny we raised went into these buildings, so we have a balance of zero,” Mr. Snider said. “We still have to raise money for next season, but it was a damn good start.” Mr. Snider said the MVTF will need to raise $150,000 per year from now on, in large part for maintenance of the theaters.
Mr. Snider has no doubt the smell of popcorn will be wafting out of both theaters this summer.
“We’ll be doing some fun fundraisers later in the year,” Mr. Snider said. “I know we’ll raise the money. These theaters are the ultimate example of a great Island effort, across the board.”
The Capawock will reopen in late April or early May, and the Strand in mid- to late May. “One determining factor is the number of employees returning to the Island from college,” Mr. Snider said. “We’re hoping many of our 15-plus employees from last year will rejoin us. And we’re hoping for some good movies to show.”