, Salem, MA

December 12, 2012

Rallying around the movie theater

The Salem News

---- — It’s a business, not a nonprofit.

And theoretically, at least, CinemaSalem exists to produce money for its owner.

And yet, in Salem, The Little Theater That Could has become much more than that. And that’s why the campaign to save Salem’s unique movie theater seems very much like the kind of heartwarming story that could be featured itself on the theater’s silver screen.

CinemaSalem opened in 2006 in a spot where several earlier theaters had failed. There’s big competition next door in Danvers, with 20 screens at the AMC Loews Liberty Tree Mall theater and another half-dozen or so at Hollywood Hits. Salem has just three regular screens, plus a small screening room for less-well-known art-house films and local productions.

But local co-owner Paul Van Ness has thrived where others failed by becoming an integral part of the Salem community and, literally, making a difference.

He put this small city on the map, at least in the movie world, by creating Salem Film Fest, a winter festival that brings in dozens of documentary films — and their filmmakers — for screenings, discussions and lectures. It’s a boost not only to moviegoers, but to restaurants and businesses downtown who see a big bump in activity during one of the coldest times of the year. Dozens of volunteers help make it a reality.

A portion of the theater’s proceeds every month is donated to local nonprofits, including the YMCA, HAWC, Salem CyberSpace and the Foundation for Salem Public Education, some $40,000 in all. And, just as importantly, the owner has opened the theater as a community gathering spot, inviting people in for free screenings of popular TV series, such as “Glee” and “Lost,” or for community groups to air films.

It’s unusual to find independent movie theaters today in the heart of a small city, much less contributing to the character of a downtown. But CinemaSalem has filled that niche here.

So now, when the theater needs to raise $60,000 to buy new digital screening equipment or risk closing next year, the community has rallied around its theater. As of last night, more than 750 people had pledged more than $48,500 — less than a week after the campaign was launched — to save CinemaSalem. All of this for a business, not a charity.

That’s a testament to what a good business can mean to a community.

CinemaSalem has shown it cares about Salem; now it’s clear that Salem cares about its cinema, too.