Brattle Theatre Renovation Will Add Digital Projection and New HVAC System

The theater raised nearly $150,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year.

By | Arts & Entertainment |
brattle theatre

Photo via Brattle Theatre

The Brattle Theatre has been up and running in Cambridge for decades, and prides itself on its unique take on cinema. Ned Hinkle, a creative director at the Brattle, considers the theater a Harvard Square fixture. “We really try to combine the sacred and the profane into an interesting mixture of film programming,” he said.

At the end of February, the Brattle launched a $140,000 Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a big, two-fold renovation project. The main component is the installation of a digital projection system (called a Digital Cinema Package, or DCP) to be put in place alongside the existing film projector. The secondary piece is a revitalization of the theater’s heating and cooling system, which is currently on its last limbs.

The Brattle is making this move toward digital because of a general shift in the film world. Hinkle explained that within the next year, big Hollywood movies simply won’t be printed on film anymore. If the Brattle wants to run a big blockbuster, but sticks to solely film projection, their choices will be very limited. And while it isn’t often that the Brattle plays these films, there are still occasions when it feels right for big-name flicks. (For example, in their “Best of 2012” series, the Brattle screened The Avengers as part of the event.) And more frequently, the Brattle will opt for restoration of an older title, which are now also being released nearly exclusively digitally.

Given this trend, the Brattle knew it was time to make a change if they wanted to survive. They opted to run a five-week Kickstarter campaign, but Hinkle says that at no point did the staff genuinely worry about missing the mark. There was more of a sense of relief, rather than ecstasy, when they hit $140K. Brattle reached their goal—quite appropriately—on the night of the Oscars. The staff was setting up for their Oscar party. “We were jumping for joy and shrieking, but that’s not really our atmosphere here. We all sort of applauded each other, and moved on [with our preparations],” Hinkle said.

Not only did the Brattle reach their original goal in time, but they raised an additional $9,000. Hinkle explained that the original estimate was very much a “bare bones” request, and they aren’t sure how much money will be left over. If they complete the planned project with some cash to spare, the theater plans to invest in a new screen and a surround-sound system. But for now, the extra money is on reserve until the initial renovation is complete. The Brattle hopes to complete the project by the end of spring, if not earlier.

The Brattle is by no means the only small theater in the area conducting a digital revamp. Last year, the Coolidge Corner Theater ran a similar campaign to incorporate digital projection. (Their campaign was private though, rather than being hosted by Kickstarter. Hinkle readily admitted that the Coolidge boasts a much larger base of patrons than the Brattle, enabling them to carry out their fundraiser in this way.)

While there may have been an outburst if the Brattle completely converted to digital, rather than simply integrating it, Hinkle pointed out that when it comes down to it, “DCP is just a delivery device.” Independent theaters are, in essence, being forced into this change.

But rather than viewing the shift as a downturn, Hinkle sees it as a blessing in disguise. “Movie theaters are a community resource,” he explains. “You hear about a movie making millions at the box office, and it’s hard to imagine a theater struggling to pay their staff.” But projects like this thrust indie theaters into the spotlight, and as Hinkle puts it, “The fragility and value of independent and local cinemas has been highlighted.”

—Molly Mirhashem