Vineyard haven: Island Film Society finally has a state-of-the-art home


“Just like in a new theater on the mainland, it’s gonna have stadium seating where every seat is a great seat,” Richard Paradise, founder and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, told the Vineyard Gazette about his new venture at the end of June. The new Martha’s Vineyard Film Center would also feature DCI-compliant digital projection, 7.1 surround sound, ambient lighting, and a 27-foot (8 m) screen, enhanced by a full curtain and complete with a small events stage.

Paradise couldn’t be happier that the new 185-seat cinema was completed in time for the Sept. 6 opening of the annual film festival on the Massachusetts island. Film Journal International caught up with him just two days after the seventh edition of “a jam-packed movie spree” had been successfully completed.

“I just can’t go hide after the festival any more,” Paradise laughs about no longer being able to take the week off. “Our Film Center is something that I’ll have to work on every day now.”
After a more than a decade of nomadic existence, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center (MVFC) is “a dream come true,” he enthuses. “This is the first theatre on the island that has been built from the ground up since 1913… And it happened in a very brief period of time and on time, with really not a lot of conflict. We did all of this in four months, which is unbelievable for The Vineyard. It took me eight weeks to get the toilet changed in my house,” he recalls with audible frustration. For the MVFC, however, “there were maybe a few times when we had to push through the permitting process.” After all, “we’re dealing with an island with people who don’t like change… There is definitely that island laissez-faire kind of relaxed attitude.”

The MVFC represents a unique collaboration between private enterprise and the member-funded, nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS, Established in February 2002, the Society has set its sights on “screening the best in independent films, movie classics, documentaries, and world cinema for diverse audiences of all ages throughout the calendar year.” In 1999, Paradise and a group of volunteers revived “Movie Museum at the Grange Hall,” a summer series of classic films inaugurated during the 1970s. Until 2006, on every Thursday night, they showed films from the 1930s to ’60s. During the past 10+ years, MVFS has grown to more than 700 members and, expanding well beyond the classics, Paradise has screened well over 700 feature films and hundreds of shorts for the Society.

When it comes to the 12 to 15 different venues around The Vineyard, from a former agricultural hall to churches and community centers, to the Hall family-owned Capawock Theatre, plus numerous outdoor spaces, Paradise has always been there. “If it has an auditorium, I’ve probably pulled up with my equipment van and shown movies in it.”

In 2011 alone, MVFS presented over 70 films to more than 12,500 patrons. And more than 2,500 people attended that year’s Festival. 2012 admissions were not yet available at press time, but box office was up 45% over last year, Paradise reports. “In any given one year, it had never gone up more than 10% or 15%. $40,000 in three days may not sound like a lot for a Tribeca Film Festival, but for a small grass-roots operation...” Paradise credits “all the excitement and buzz surrounding the Film Center” and “stronger films, tighter programming” for the success.

Getting the Film Center in place, it appears, has been quite the opposite of an “If you build it, they will come” scenario. They have come and come and the MVFS needed to build it. After many years of looking and inquiring, around June of 2011 Paradise finally found a supporter that was truly willing to step up to the plate. Offering a long-term operating lease, local developer Reid “Sam” Dunn and his company, Ferryboat Village Partnership, promised to fund and newly construct the entire building as part of a 3,600-square-foot (335 sq. m.) corner space at their Tisbury Marketplace. It was a “handshake deal,” as long as MVFS could raise all necessary funds for the theatrical outfit. “I had no lease, he had no contract.” Paradise says, “We said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Initially, “our fundraising goal was $350,000, and currently we have exceeded that by about $30,000,” he elaborates. “We’ve gone over the goal level, but also over the budget,” Paradise deadpans. “Nothing terrible, though.” He assures that it was more about last-minute changes, such as the LED house-light fixtures having to be repainted by hand as the desired color was on back order. “Until about a month ago, the leasehold improvement capital budget was about $343,000. During the last three to four weeks, in the throes of getting the building up and running in time for the Festival (which had always been the goal, he assures, since announcing the campaign during the 2011 edition), “some things arose that we didn’t plan and budget for. Last-minute items, you know. When all is said and done,” Paradise expects MVFC to be looking at a $400,000 overall price tag.

With everything running so smoothly, Paradise gives “all the credit to the developer, architect, and his building general contracting company.” Several of the subcontractors, “especially the electrician who was able to put in all the wiring necessary [helped] to make everything work. And for all of these guys, this was the first movie theatre that they have ever worked on. We didn’t bring anyone in from the outside…and probably saved a lot of money because of that. Everybody jumped right in, wanting to get it done, but they really didn’t know what it was going to take.” It is true, Paradise opines, “that if you are a little naïve, magic happens.”

On the cinema front, the magic was left to industry experts, however. “Irwin came through for us,” Paradise says, lauding “our comfortable seats,” which were put in just four days before opening night. “Boston Light & Sound was phenomenal too, installing our Christie projector, Dolby d-cinema server and QSC Audio amplifiers, JBL speakers… They put it all together for us, perfectly.”

Paradise has especially high praise for the installer, Lonny Jennings, “who had been there for us during the previous ten days. What a guy! He stayed through opening night and the festival, nursing us through our very first weekend. To have that level of confidence was great. I can’t speak more highly of them.” During the Festival, “I had filmmakers come up to me who have been at many, many film festivals, and say, ‘This is the best my movie has ever looked and sounded outside of L.A., perhaps.’ It was great to hear that they thought this highly of the presentation.”

Describing the design, Paradise feels, “It’s more of a performance space than movie theatre. Definitely not a black box. There is lot going on aesthetically, partly because we also wanted to make sure that the Film Center can be used by other groups and for other special events.”

Not surprisingly, the seats are covered in a purple fabric. “Grape is a color that is not unusual to find on The Vineyard. Even though we don’t have any operating vineyards or orchards here at this point,” he laughs. “It is kind of ironic because Martha’s Vineyard was, of course, named for the proficiency of wild grapes when the first settlers came.”

Thankfully, Paradise could rely on a board member and his artist wife to come up with a “well-rounded and beautiful design when we were struggling with what colors to pick. We have some 12 different colors throughout the auditorium and lobby… When I first heard about the purple fabric, I was like, ‘Oh, no. I don’t know if that is going to work…a sea of grape.’ But it really, really works, because the wall treatment is a dark green and balances the bright purple really, really well. We used natural fabrics, our bamboo stage was stained dark and the curtain is a very, very dark purple too. It all looks like it should be there and nothing else. The lobby has an all-natural tile floor and beige, grayish colors for the walls.” Even the orange-colored grips that hold the sprinkler piping in place became a distinctive design element when the railings and the catwalk of the two-story lobby—and the previously mentioned house lights—were painted.

Variety is also key. “With a permanent home of our own, we will be able to program movies more frequently and more diverse.” He says that includes film series and bringing back the classics on “a big screen and with a sound system that has no rival on the island.” Paradise will continue to develop what he calls “destination movies” tied in with local happenings and present special events around the movie along with filmmakers and expert discussions. For the Martha’s Vineyard Fashion Week, for instance, the Film Center will show documentaries about Bill Cunningham and Vidal Sassoon, and one “that is not that well-known about the relationship between women and their shoes.” God Save My Shoes, indeed! Though “we’re definitely not going to be a traditional, first-run movie house,” Paradise is looking to book week-long engagements of popular films such as Robot & Frank, which was a hit during the Festival.

“We will slowly ramp up to seven days a week, in-season” until around the holidays. “From January through March, we’ll probably scale back to four days or so because the population on The Vineyard just shrinks. But we are committed to being very diverse throughout.” Paradise now has the capability of bringing additional tours of other festivals to Martha’s Vineyard. Having already done the Manhattan Short Film Festival for several years, “booking it several nights in a row will provide a lot more opportunity for people to actually see the program. Invariably, before, when I showed a program on a Saturday night, people asked why it was not available on Friday.” Instead of having to book spaces on the island nine months in advance, “it is very easy to show something that is popular on multiple nights. And if I want to bring certain titles and programs back, we have that opportunity now too. In the past, all my venue bookings had to be done six, nine, twelve months in advance. We control our own destiny now. I have a lot of interesting ideas. That’s the next journey.”