This April, Athens’ one and only arthouse movie theater turns 10. With age comes change, and Ciné, which has gone through its fair share of transformations over the years, is looking to take one of its biggest steps forward to date.
Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary, Ciné is launching a fundraiser to purchase the building that houses the theater, to remove the looming threat of the property being bought by an outside party and allow Ciné to continue and expand upon its mission to educate and entertain the Athens community.
Flagpole talked to several figures from Ciné’s past and present about how the theater became a staple of downtown Athens, and where things might go from here.
Richard Neupert, a UGA film studies professor and the “unofficial Ciné historian,” was involved with Ciné from its earliest planning stages.
“I used to host a French film festival on campus,” he says. “On the first night of the festival in 2007, I was approached by Ciné’s original owner, Brigitta Hangartner. She was fairly new in town at the time, but she approached me and told me she had just bought a building downtown and was going to open an arthouse. I was absolutely thrilled.”
Neupert explains the early inner workings of Ciné. “Early on, Brigitta had an advisory board, and I was on that, with a mix of students and film buffs. We would meet once a month or so and discuss plans for the future of the theater. Brigitta was dedicated to the notion that this would be a European-style arthouse, so we designed the look of the building and the theater’s programming around that notion.”
Ciné’s current executive director, Pamela Kohn, was also involved in those days. “Having an arthouse theater in the downtown area is something that I thought would bring an enormous amount of culture and interactivity to town,” she says. “The idea of an arthouse theater in downtown Athens alone was compelling enough, but Brigitta had her own unique vision of what the theater should look like and envisioned it wonderfully, so the beauty of the space itself definitely attracted me to the project.”
Ciné quickly gained a dedicated local fanbase, though the theater experienced financial trouble early on. “It was growing gradually, but the problem was that it was not [very] profitable,” says Neupert. “It’s a hard business to run, limited by number of seats, the obscure films we were playing and other things. It was rough for a while.”
In 2011, Hangartner, who was moving to Illinois, decided to hand Ciné’s ownership over to the Athens Film Arts Institute and convert the theater into a nonprofit, educational enterprise. It achieved nonprofit status on Jan. 1, 2012.
Dave Marr, co-president of Ciné’s board of directors and former Flagpole news editor, believes that move was what ultimately gave Ciné its cultural identity.
“We had to increase focus on our educational mission after that,” says Marr. “I would argue, however, that there was always an educational mission to Ciné. That was part of what Brigitta intended to do with the building—she wanted people to learn about cinema as an art form beyond superhero movies or whatever. But we’ve had to make that a more concrete aspect of what we do… We are way more conscious of trying to use Ciné as a key resource for the community and for educational events.”
Ciné is now an integral part of Athens’ culture. Hollywood filmmaker and Athens native James Ponsoldt, who has worked with and spoken at Ciné in the past, says the theater has helped represent and improve the city as a whole.
“Ciné galvanizes the community and fosters conversations about every topic imaginable, from the deeply personal to the political,” Ponsoldt says. “In an age of increasing corporatization and a homogenization of culture, independent movie theaters like Ciné serve as a refuge for provocative stories and ideas. I can't imagine Athens without Ciné at this point. It’s an absolutely essential part of the town’s cultural landscape, up there with places like UGA, Avid Bookshop or the 40 Watt.”
Outside of the world of film, Ciné has become a one-stop shop to witness work from local artists and musicians. Visual art is almost always on display in the hallway of the theater's entrance, and the CinéLab across from the screening rooms frequently hosts art exhibits and musical performances.
“We have local artists displayed on the wall, and host a lot of showcases for artists,” says Ciné board member Mark Weathersby, best known as DJ Mahogany. “I think showcasing an artist’s work is one of the most wonderful things that Ciné does. Art, in all its forms, is so crucial to Athens, and I think that we play an important role in that.”
Displaying local artists’ work, expanding its cafe area, collaborating with local schools and broadening its film programming beyond the sometimes challenging arthouse fare have all turned Ciné into a place that feels more welcoming and warm than when it first arrived. Though the shift in programming was met with skepticism by purists, Neupert believes the change was for the best.
“I think Ciné has gone from an arthouse that was struggling to survive to more of a neighborhood center that provides a balanced selection of movies and amenities,” he says. “Some of the films we show that are a little more popular, I don’t know that Brigitta would have been interested in showing, but I think Ciné has really grown to be someplace that people in the neighborhood would prefer to go to than a huge multiplex.”
Neupert says Ciné’s original concept has seen an explosion in popularity across the country. “I’ve heard people talk about Ciné as a place for an ‘elite’ film crowd, but I don’t really think that’s the case anymore,” he says. “We were one of the early innovators of something that has become a trend, not only nationally, but in other theaters in town. Carmike or Beechwood never had a bar until we came along. We had that community feeling first, and now you see other local theaters trying to replicate that. It’s a really accessible place now.”
In April, Ciné will embark on a three-year, $2.5 million fundraising effort. “The idea of Ciné owning itself is very compelling, and it’s something I think is worth putting all of our efforts into,” says Kohn. “We hope that the community will support us in any way they can, and we will do everything we can to achieve the goal of full ownership.”
Some of the specific projects laid out post-fundraiser (though everything is still in the planning stages) include a possible expansion of the CinéLab so it can function as both a well-equipped music venue and a “portable” screening room on par with Ciné’s two other full-fledged theaters. In addition, the board envisions adding one or two staff members whose sole focus will be on Ciné’s educational goals.
However, the main goal is to purchase the building so the current staff will be able to maintain Ciné’s quality of operations. According to Marr, Ciné owning its building is the best possible situation.
“This upcoming campaign has been the board’s main project for more than a year,” he says. “Our general role at any time is to support the mission and operations of the cinema and to support Pam, but this has been a pretty interesting year, since we’ve been trying to figure out what we were going to do when it came time for us to work towards purchasing the building.
“We’ve got a road in front of us now,” he continues. “We have a path that we have decided on. We’ve gotta come out of the gate really strong, and hopefully when and if we own the building outright, we will be able to devote all of our resources to our programming and our educational mission.”
Ciné will kick off its 10th anniversary with a monthlong repertory series throughout April, including screenings of 1984, To Catch a Thief, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and other classics. On Thursday, Apr. 20, the cinema will officially kick off its fundraising campaign with a birthday bash and screening of Amélie.
Kohn says Ciné hopes to keep supplying Athens with unique experiences. “Seeing a film in a sold-out room full of people, sharing memories and thoughts with a room full of friends and neighbors… That experience is the essence of what we bring to this community, and I hope that with this fundraiser we can continue to do that for as long as possible.”
See athenscine.com for more information on the April repertory screenings and the fundraising campaign.