Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival looks to West Tisbury for new home

The closing date for purchasing the 12.5-acre property is June 22.

This photo shows a portion of the property, which includes the back field, once eyed by the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival for its new home. – Sam Moore

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival (MVFF), a nonprofit group that hosts a variety of art events and film screenings around the Island, announced last week in an email appeal to supporters that it is poised to purchase a 12.5-acre property at 694 Old County Road in the heart of the West Tisbury village historic district and “build a vibrant year-round gathering place for our community, a place where education, art, and inspiration intersect.”

The MVFF has set out to raise $2 million to purchase the farmland and renovate the 1830s house on the property, previously owned by Cynthia Walsh. The closing date for the $1.4 million land purchase is June 22.

The news has generated considerable consternation among nearby residents concerned about changes to the pastoral atmosphere of the neighborhood. Although the permitting process has yet to begin, West Tisbury selectmen moved the location of their regular Wednesday-night meeting to the Howes House in anticipation of a large number of residents turning up to discuss the topic.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, MVFF founder and executive director Thomas Bena of Chilmark said the purchase would allow the 16-year-old nonprofit to create a center where it could hold all of its events year-round. These include a summer film series, March film festival, children’s circus, a filmmaking camp, and school programs.

Currently, MVFF holds these events in venues across the Island. For example, the popular film festival is held at the Chilmark Community Center. The MVFF office is a rented space above Chilmark Tavern. Mr. Bena said some MVFF equipment is stored at the up-Island Cronig’s. Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Market, is MVFF board president.

“When you move summer and winter — and a lot of us have done that for many years — there’s a fatigue that sets in when you can’t really be in one place fully,” Mr. Bena said. “We feel like we need a home so we can properly serve the community. Right now we spend so much energy setting up and tearing down and going to various boards of selectmen to get permission. We want a home to serve the community year-round.”

‘More than movies’

The notion of another movie theater on an Island where one new state-of-the-art theater was built from scratch and two venerable but crumbling theaters were completely renovated has raised questions about how much is too much.

Mr. Bena stressed that the space is not meant to be a movie theater in the classic sense. “We’re more than movies — that’s our tagline, and it has been for many years,” Mr. Bena said. “If you ever come to our March festival … probably 60 percent of the events that go on there aren’t watching movies. It’s eating and discussion and education and courses for kids.”

He said the new building will be unlike the Film Center, Strand, or Capawock Theater.

“I look at what the Film Center is doing, and it’s a movie theater, and that’s great, but we are not building a movie theater,” Mr. Bena said. “We’re building a barn that can show movies, but this barn can also have theater and lectures, performances, poetry — it can be anything we want it to be.”

He said it could be a space for afterschool education programs, a collaborative space with other Island nonprofits, or just a place to read, work, or talk with other community members.

“I honestly think what’s hard for people, and it’s hard for us too, is that we don’t really know what this is yet, and we won’t know until we have these community brainstorm sessions and we build it together,” Mr. Bena said. “That’s, for me, the part that’s so exciting. We’re building something and we don’t know what it fully looks like yet, and while I understand that can be scary, what I do know is that it deserves a place in the community.”

No plans made

Tuesday, Mr. Bena said the group will be looking for community input before drawing up any definitive plans. “We don’t want to walk in with a plan and then hold community meetings,” he said. “We want to hold community meetings and then make a plan.”

No dates have been set for the community meetings, which Mr. Bena said will be held throughout the summer.

“The idea is that, for right now, we’ll have one-on-one discussions with anyone who would like to, and over the summer we’ll be forming some more community-based discussions,” MVFF managing director Brian Ditchfield said. “We don’t exactly have a timeline for that, so we’re trying to figure that out.”

Mr. Bena does have a vision for what the property will look like. He described the space as “very, very rustic,” in keeping with the agricultural, rural look of the property. He described leaving much of the 12.5 acres as open space, with a farm and a cleared route to the bike path.

“There’s not a pavement parking lot, so you drive in and there’s a working farm, and maybe there’s some fruit trees and beautiful grass and greenery, and you pull up to this old-looking barn with a timber frame … you walk in and there’s a wood stove going, and there are 10 or 30 people there hanging out, and you sit there and you do an hour of work, maybe you grab a book off the shelf or a DVD, and you leave,” Mr. Bena said. “Maybe you pull in another time and there’s an event going on. There’s a movie, so you watch the movie, and then you walk outside and sit at a picnic table with friends, and you share a meal, and then you go home. It’s like what we do in March, which I would argue doesn’t exist anywhere on this Island.”

Not a megaplex

Mr. Bena acknowledged that the role of developer contradicts his often vocal stance against development. This summer he will screen a documentary he worked on for 12 years, “One Big Home,” that describes the negative impact of so-called trophy homes on the Island.

“I fought the Stop and Shop expansion; I was really against that. I believed that it was ridiculous, but they didn’t want to give,” he said. “They said, ‘This is what we’re building, we’re not going to change the size.’ We’re not saying that.”

Mr. Bena said the MVFF will not build a megaplex. MVFF operations manager Hilary Dreyer added, “It’s 12.5 acres, but the scale of what we’re building, the majority of it is going to feel very open and still contain that woodsy, West Tisbury feeling, which is where I grew up, so I know it’s part of what is so precious about West Tisbury.”

Mr. Ditchfield said the group searched for many years for a property prior to the decision to purchase the Old County property. “We looked all over the Island, and we’ve been looking for many years, and we’re still open to looking,” he said. “We love the idea of being at the center of the Island.”

Mr. Bena said he would like to hear from anyone in the community who may take issue with the proposed project, including how it might impact the surrounding residential area.

“The noise you’re talking about hearing is children running around and playing, and people laughing,” he said. “The thing that I think we have to work on and figure out is the noise and the traffic. Those are our two biggest concerns, and guess what? They’re the abutters’ two biggest concerns, too.”

The group has met with the West Tisbury planning board, which they said was an “exploratory” meeting. Next steps will include hearing from the community, purchasing the land, and beginning the permitting process with the planning board and Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“Our mission is to show films that spark discussion, debate, and action,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “We want to continue to live that mission, and that is what we want to do right now. We want to have a discussion and a debate with the community, and then we want to move forward in conjunction with the community to create this.”

To each his own

Martha’s Vineyard is rich in seasonal and year-round art, music, and theater nonprofit groups and organizations. The Island has four movie theaters, three of which are owned and operated by nonprofits.

The Edgartown Cinema features two screens and is owned by Entertainment Cinemas.

Last spring, the newly formed Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation (MVTF) completed a Herculean winter effort of fundraising and renovations, and reopened the long-dormant Strand Theatre at the foot of Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and the Capawock in Vineyard Haven. The MVTF’s stated goal is to use the venue for a number of different types of events, which include film, lectures, and live performances.

In September 2012, following years of planning, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society opened the the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Film Center executive director Richard Paradise took an uncritical wait-and-see attitude. “It’s really up to the community and really up to the public to determine that after time — if it’s successful or not successful,” he said. “I think that’s usually the determining factor for when a nonprofit wants to build something and increase the amount of programming they’re doing.”

He said the Island market is small, and that factors into programming decisions. “Every film has a certain audience potential, and that audience potential will vary depending on the time of year here, because we are such a seasonal community,” he said. “If we were sitting in downtown St. Louis, where there’s probably a more stable population year-round, you have that market. Here, the market and the audience and the population varies from season to season.”

He expects the MVFF project will be thoroughly vetted. “My understanding is that anything built new on the Vineyard, just like when we built the Film Center, has to go through a really arduous evaluation from the MVC [Martha’s Vineyard Commission],” Mr. Paradise said. “We had to do that, we had to hold public meetings, we had to explain our programming and our frequency and parking and all that, so I would assume all of this would be vetted out.”

For more information on the MVFF, call 508-645-9599 or go to