When you buy snacks at the West Newton Cinema, the guy who sells them to you is usually the same guy who sold you the ticket. His name is David Bramante. He also runs the projector and, until recently, he owned the theater.
West Newton Cinema's 86-year run as a small independent theater fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of many movie theaters large and small to close in Massachusetts and around the country. The dramatic downturn in ticket sales pushed Bramante to sell the building that houses the cinema, and it seemed like it might be lost for good. But a newly launched community campaign aims to save the theater by reinventing it as a nonprofit, which other Massachusetts theaters have proven can be a sustainable business model.
"After the pandemic, we were facing a tremendous loss of sales and we needed to find a way to look to the future,” Bramante explained. “We decided to move ahead and sell the building, and stay in the building as tenants as long as we could. "
Last summer he sold the building for $5.6 million to a company called Mark Development, which has been developing new buildings around Newton and also owns the buildings on both sides of the theater. As part of the deal, the developer agreed to give them some time for a nonprofit to try to buy the building back, at the same price.
"And the deal is set that if they can raise the funds, he'll sell the building back to them and they can stay a movie theater," Bramante said.
On Friday, the foundationlaunched its campaign to raise $9.9 million to cover the cost of buying the theater back from the developer and renovate the building. Those plans include making the theaters accessible, updating seats and creating open spaces for community events.
"This theater is the complete opposite of the megaplex," said Susan Bernstein, who is on the West Newton Cinema Foundation’s steering committee.
“I went there as a kid. I brought my nephews there. Before COVID, I probably went at least once a month," she said. "The campaign to save the theater financially is not simply to renew it as it has been, but to reimagine it."
The foundation hopes to turn the theater into more of an arts space, where music performances and other community events can also happen, Bernstein explained.
Another Massachusetts theater, the Cape Cinema in Dennis, is trying something similar.
"Moving into a nonprofit gives us an opportunity at sustainability," said Josh Mason, who served popcorn in high school at the one-screen theater and recently took over as executive director. Mason converted it to a nonprofit in January.
"[Nonprofit status gives us] the ability to get tax-exempt donations from our patrons, from foundations, find grants funding,“ Mason said. “That's a lot of work to do the grant underwriting. It's not something I love doing, but it's something I have to do because I love what I do so much."
“Something like the West Newton Cinema, it's an institution," said Ned Hinkle, The Brattle's creative director.
The West Newton Cinema's transformation to a nonprofit will work, he said, if the community wants it.
"If you're trying to become a nonprofit so that you can remain a community resource, and the support is there, then it's just sort of like a no-brainer in some ways," he said.
The foundation has until the end of August 2024 to raise the money to buy the theater back from the developer.
"Many times when these theater buildings are sold, what happens is the town and the residents hear about it [and say] 'Oh, that's a shame. I wish we had known. Why didn't you tell us? We could have done something, but it's too late now,'" said Bramante.
This time, though, the community knows, and there's a way they can still save the cinema, Bramante said.