While cozy dinners with friends and trips to hear live music in tightly packed venues have gone by the wayside during the coronavirus pandemic, the M.V. Film Society has worked to keep its options open. After riding out four months of closure beginning last March, M.V. Film Center founder and executive director Richard Paradise opened for screenings in July, following Gov. Charlie Baker’s instructions. The Film Center is still open now, with special seating arrangements, sanitizing procedures, and other safety precautions in place. But while they could technically welcome 60 people into the theater, the total has been well below that number of late.
Ever the film lover and optimist, Paradise told The Times, “I’m going to deliver our mission as we always have, whether it’s six people or 106 people. We’re going to keep doing the festivals but we won’t do parties and other gatherings, we’ll offer events in hybrid ways.”
Paradise said that many people did check out this year’s film festivals online — the Spectrum Film Festival, the Environmental Film Festival, the Filmusic Festival, Documentary Week, the M.V. International Film Festival, and the October Women in Film Festival. But like many Island nonprofits, the M.V. Film Society has had to pivot and change its strategy and with that, the way it presents film to the community. The Film Center hasn’t hosted special live receptions nor are they bringing people to the Island for special events, which has cut down on some costs at a time when it is critical, Paradise explained. They also haven’t had to furlough employees, something he’s grateful for.
“We did our best to adapt, to be resilient. But like with all nonprofits, there was so much of a learning curve,” he said.
Paradise found himself dealing with the pandemic and having the venue closed to learning about new funding sources — statewide resources, government resources. “There wasn’t a day that went by that I wasn’t in a Zoom meeting on how do you stay alive, how do you keep your community engaged … industry-specific, nonprofit-specific … the information at times seemed overwhelming.”
Paradise lauded Martha’s Vineyard Bank’s Lift Certificate program and said that the Film Center was able to acquire a PPP small business loan. He had sent out a survey in April to glean information from patrons about whether or not they would attend film screenings in person once the Film Center reopened. He had a positive response, with about 25 percent of the nearly 1,000 surveys returned saying that they would be comfortable attending screenings.
“I may have been a little too optimistic based on the survey we’d done,” Paradise admitted. “When people took the survey we were still in the early stages, and they might have thought this would all be over by summer.”
Instead, he said, there’s been so much news about not going out and not being indoors at our usual haunts that it has impacted what people are open to doing, even though, he said, “there is very little evidence that COVID cases have resulted from attending movies.” The Film Center could have stayed closed, but like Island retailers and restaurants, Paradise said they wanted to provide the community a place where people could reasonably gather and take a break from their routine to watch a great film, opera, or theater. “We want to be there for our community. If you don’t feel like you want to take the risk at all, that’s OK we understand that. We have a community of people who support us and they still are renewing their memberships and they’ve been terrific.”
The Film Society has kept the community engaged by presenting online options such as the Film Center at Home virtual screening room and the late Bob Dutton’s series of virtual film classes.
“We offered educational video workshops online, with Bob Dutton leading the charge and facilitating a 10-volume series on all the aspects of movies, from watching them to making them,” Paradise said.
For M.V. Film Society member Kenny Ivory, who has opted to continue watching films in person, there’s no substitute for watching films on the big screen, and there’s no substitute for the educational opportunities that Dutton brought to the Film Center.
“I will say the first time I went back I was sad because there was a face missing, Bob Dutton,” Ivory said. “He did a series on how to watch movies and I learned so much from that. Now when I go back and watch a movie for a second time, I focus on the background. I went to see the documentary ‘Aggie’ the other night and someone was interviewing her in one of the rooms in her house and sitting there was a Vineyard Vines cup. I never would have noticed anything like that before.
“I love movies, to me they’re like my psychiatrist’s couch,” Ivory laughed. “The lights go down and you go away for awhile. There’s nothing like going to movies there, with the big screen and surround sound.”
Ivory said that people go to grocery stores and other places on a regular basis during the pandemic, so going to the Film Center is no different than some of their other trips, in fact, he said, it might be more safe.
He explained that the first thing you do when you enter the building is put on hand sanitizer. “You wear your mask the whole time,” Ivory said. “There are no concessions, we walk into the main theater and there are yellow T shirts marking where you cannot sit. Once you sit down, they ask that you don’t leave the seat. I feel very safe. It’s very clean, they take a photo after everyone is settled and when the movie is over, they sanitize the seats as soon as everyone is gone.”
Paradise explained that the air filtration system at the Film Center is already head and shoulders above others because it has to be to keep the film projection system running smoothly.
“Because of our HVAC system, our heat pumps are way up in the ceiling, with little risk of vapor going into that heat pump. Fresh air comes in and then goes out with our circulating air flow system because that’s how we cool down our projector. We don’t have the usual system like a home would have, because of all those things people feel safe.”
Mike Bellisimo joined the board of directors of the Film Center in March after he realized he’d be spending much more time on the Island than in previous years. He said he wanted to look for ways to give back to the community, and like Ivory and Paradise, Bellisimo is a cinephile. “The Film Center gives me so much joy,” he explained. Bellisimo remembers his grandmother sneaking him into R-rated movies when he was too young to attend them. “Maybe it’s just that feeling of being transported for awhile.” He loves film so much that to him, Paradise is an essential worker.
“Winter is coming and watching a film is pretty much the only thing I can do these days,” Bellisimo said. “I think I’ve been to every film Richard’s screened. I’ve been one of those people who’s always been in the audience. I know it’s safe the way he has it set up with social distancing, sanitizing after every film. When you can’t travel, the ability to be transformed in film is so exciting. There’s so much doom and gloom, we’re all exhausted from it. I’m a 61-year-old guy and I feel safe and comfortable there. It’s a safe place to be transported when you can’t travel.”
Bellisimo and his wife bring their own snacks and settle into movie theater seats spread out from other moviegoers, keeping their masks on at all times and not leaving their favorite spot until the film is over. Sometimes, he said, there are live-streamed discussions with directors or others involved in filmmaking. He also checks out many films on his own, saying there are limited options when it comes to activities to enjoy these days. “These are all films that have just been released,” Bellisimo said. “I’ve lived in Cleveland and Louisville, and I can get films here before I could get them in Kentucky and Ohio, and you know how hard Richard works. I don’t think we realize how lucky we are to get the films we’re getting.”
For Paradise, he’s just happy to be up and running, still bringing the Island community the best viewing opportunities available. He said the Film Center has set up private screening opportunities for small groups and they’ve even had businesses use the Film Center’s big screen for Skype and business presentations, all while maintaining safety protocols.
“We have more than 2,500 members year-round, and visitors who come and go. More of the summer people have stayed into autumn,” Paradise said. “I don’t hold anything against anyone for not coming back to watch a film, I totally get it. But if you love cinema, we’re the best place to watch a movie or a simulcast performing arts broadcast.”
Coming up at the Film Center, theatergoers, or those who watch the M.V. Film Center at Home, can look forward to “Ammonite,” starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker,” the holiday film “Dear Santa,” or the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute,” among other options. Visit mvfilmsociety.com for more information.