On a temperate, breezy March afternoon I circled the Hartford campus of Trinity College to find Cinestudio. The Cinestudio sign was lit and the brick looked worn but had the old-world charm of Gothic architecture. John Michael Mason, 29, the young, athletic chairman of Cinestudio, opened the door with a bright smile. Inside, moviegoers are greeted by intense heat and intricate wooden doors. The lobby displayed posters of the movies that will soon come to the theater. A poster for the Royal Opera House showed Sleeping Beauty, with a list of upcoming performances like La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, which was the inspiration for the popular musical, Rent. An interesting poster of a blond woman with her face covered by someone with a bright green sleeve advertises Beanpole, a foreign film by Kantemir Balagov.
Mason climbed the steps to the balcony of the theater. Posters from different movies and shows lined the small balcony lobby. A poster of a ballerina in a pretty, white ballet dress advertised the Russian Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet’s Swan Lake. “We have ballet that is recorded live from Moscow and then shown on the screen here,” Mason said. Next was a poster of Lucian Freud: A Self Portrait, “We call this an exhibition on screen, which is like a documentary and art show in one. It talks about his life and shows off his artwork.” The poster showed Lucian Freud painting on a canvas.
The balcony felt high enough to give a moviegoer vertigo as many golden lions stare up from the carpet. The plush red seats offer comfort. Across the expanse of the 465 seats hung the golden curtain, shining across the whole front wall. “This is the best-kept secret of Hartford,” Mason said. “Not many people know about it, and that’s the problem.”
The building was constructed in 1935 and was originally the Clement Chemistry Building. The space was converted to a theater in 1970 by Cinestudio founders, Peter McMorris and James Hanley. “Peter installed the seats himself and to this day, him and James are still working here,” Mason said. “They’re about to retire.” Cinestudio’s grand opening was on February 16th, 1970. A sold-out showing of a double feature of Alice’s Restaurant and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine marked the first success of the theater. Today, Cinestudio shows foreign films, classics, expositions, documentaries, ballet and more.
Cinestudio is a non-profit movie theater. It was mainly built by students, and for students. Cinestudio is independent of Trinity College, but theTrinity students and faculty can use the space. “The majority of people working, volunteer. It used to always be James and Peter, now they are part-timers here,” Mason said. “The volunteers come from many different backgrounds, they all have one thing in common, if you love seeing art projected on the screen then this is a good opportunity. It takes an army of people to keep this place going.”
I think cinema is an art form and it’s entertainment. I’m glad that a place like Cinestudio can show art on screen.
Mason directs the army. “I’m helping steer the ship into the next big chapter by moving beyond the founders’ legacy. I want to make this place no longer a secret by adding more staff, having more community involvement, and different programs.”
In addition to directing Cinestudio, Mason teaches film theory. “The great thing about discussing film is that, as long as the atmosphere and the class is laid-back, you don’t feel intimidated. When people are in a calm place, it is much easier for them to speak their minds without fear of holding them back.”
Mason’s film class helps with the theater as well through an annual event called Trinity Film Festival (TTF). Mason created TFF before taking on a leadership role at Cinestudio. Student filmmakers from all over the world submit their work to Mason and his film students, and they select the Festival films. The class enjoys choosing the films for the Festival, and the opportunity to meet the filmmakers.
Student are also involved in programming movies for Cinestudio. There is a “suggestion list” where students pitch movies to be shown. The movies are handpicked from booking brunches, a meeting where students, volunteers, projectionists, and others discuss movies they are interested in showing. McMorris and Hanley then make the final decision. On February 14th, they had a Valentine’s Day Double Feature which included Casablanca and Love & Basketball. They once had a Lord of the Rings marathon from noon to 1:00 a.m. “Once the marathon was over, the canisters of film reel were all over the floor in the projection room,” Mason remembered. “I love that students have a voice in this process.”
As Netflix has become the next big thing and multiple companies are creating their own streaming services, I wonder if cinema and oldmovie houses like Cinestudio can survive. Roma, the very popular Netflix film that was up for an Oscar in 2018, was shown on the Cinestudio screen. Cinestudio was one of the seven movie theaters in the country to show Roma as it was supposed to be: in 70 mm film. Mason adds, “I think streaming services will continue to hurt movie theaters. I hope, however, that as film keeps going, Cinestudio can carve out space as a unique and ideal space for watching movies outside the home.”
“I think cinema is an art form and it’s entertainment. I’m glad that a place like Cinestudio can show art on screen.” Cinestudio celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Trinity Film Festival 2020 will be celebrated online. Check out their Instagram and website for program information.
Caitlyn Banks is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Headline Image: Anginieka Jackman