There are some innovative changes occurring at the Garden Theater in Princeton helping the vintage movie house position itself to overcome the challenges of a changed cinematic landscape.
But for the Garden, change has been a constant since it opened its doors on Nassau Street on September 20, 1920.
In addition to a showing of “Civilian Clothes,” a silent film comedy based on a 1919 Broadway play of the same name, patrons were also treated to the musical stylings of a live orchestra on a stage festooned with palms and ferns.
Situated in the heart of the Princeton community, the Garden was named for the plot where a rose garden once bloomed next to the circa 1776 Bainbridge House.
The brick-and-mortar “Garden” was originally built to accommodate Princeton University’s Triangle Club and was repurposed as a movie theater when the Triangle Club moved to McCarter Theater in the late 1920s.
The Garden was sold and resold several times in the next few decades and had its share of ups and downs in the hands of various owners and management companies.
Fast forward to 1981, when in an effort to keep up with changing times, it was turned into a twin screen venue known as the Eric Garden Theatre. United Artists ran the theater from 1988 until 1992, when the company decided it was no longer financially viable. The Theater Management Corporation, which operates neighborhood theatres throughout the northeast, began leasing and managing it in 1993, after it was quietly purchased by Princeton University.
The university and Theater Management spent nearly $200,000 on the building over the next seven years. The theater closed temporarily in August, 2000, and reopened in June, 2001, after a $1 million renovation. After the renovations, the Garden Theatre featured new seats, bathrooms, and projection and sound equipment. The roof and electrical system were repaired, and some stadium seating was provided.
Despite an improved infrastructure within the Garden’s four walls, the economics of managing a small community movie theater in an age of multiplexes, on-demand streaming, the expensive conversion to digital projection, and dependence on revenue from sellout crowds at a diminishing roster of blockbuster action adventure extravaganzas put the continued existence of the Garden very much in doubt.
Enter Renew Theaters, Inc., a nonprofit management company created to enable a single management team to operate multiple theaters, while allowing each theater to maintain its own board of directors, finances, and local identity. As a nonprofit, Renew is a “pass through” company that supplies its services at cost.
In 2014, Renew Theaters took over management of the Princeton Garden Theatre, closing the facility for more than a month for major renovations, including new carpeting and paint, a new HVAC system and popcorn machine, and other improvements. The theater reopened just in time for the Fourth of July, now showing independent, foreign, and classic films for local movie lovers.
In addition to the Garden, Renew currently operates three other movie theaters nearby in Pennsylvania: the County Theater in Doylestown, the Ambler Theater in Ambler, and the Hiway Theater in Jenkintown. Each of the theaters is run as a separate tax-exempt corporation.
“The story of how Renew came to be goes back to the late ‘80s and early 90s,” says Renew’s executive director, Chris Collier. “Our founding director John Toner was a practicing lawyer in Doylestown, running a film society on the side, and in 1993 the film society had the opportunity to move into and take over the County Theater, and John grew up in Doylestown and that was his home theater.
“The County Theater incorporated as a nonprofit in 1993. It was the heyday of independent cinema, the theater built an audience base, and they did a great job.
“The borough of Ambler, about half an hour away from Doylestown, saw what was happening at the County in Doylestown and its effect on the revitalization there,” he continues. “Community leaders wanted to do the same thing in Ambler that happened in Doylestown. John Toner was itching for another project and agreed to take it on. At some point it was decided it would be best to create a third nonprofit, Renew Theaters, as an umbrella management corporation.
“Over the rest of the 2000s we helped to get the Bryn Mawr Film Institute off the ground and helped them run their operation from 2006 to 2009,” Collier notes. “In 2013 we added the Hiway Theater into our management structure, so we were operating that theater as well, and in 2014 we took over management of the Garden.”
Collier believes that the business model he describes points the way forward for local community theaters. “The way we are structured brings something very different to the table than the commercial movie theaters,” he says. “Being nonprofit and being structured the way that we are allows us to do that, and I think that’s one of the things that will assure our future.”
Other major differences between Renew’s business model and that of commercial theaters include programming and the scale of the venues they manage.
“Commercial movie theaters are reliant on big blockbusters and huge audiences on opening day,” he says. “That’s their structure, and that’s being eroded by the streaming deals between the production companies, which are also major distributors. Our model is about the preservation of the historic cinemas we operate, each of which are small-town, historic theaters, 100 years old or nearly so. As a non-profit, we have a membership base, and we’re able to get grants and donations from a variety of sources meaning that we can program based on artistic merit, not just on box office gross projections.”
Collier notes that before the pandemic, the Garden had nearly 2,500 members. “One wonderful thing that happened during the pandemic was that a number of long-time members became sustaining (an additional level of support) members,” he notes, which is crucial to the future success of the theater.
Basic annual memberships begin at $40 for a senior or student and entitle members to reduced admission and other perks at the Garden, as well as at the three other theatres managed by Renew.
Renew’s emphasis on community appealed to Princeton University. According to Collier, the university owns the Garden Theatre building and wanted it to remain a movie theater, but they were seeking changes in the way the facility was managed.
“They concluded that it wasn’t as community focused as it could be,” he says. “They were impressed with the community work that we were doing in our other three locations, not just a mix of interesting re-run films, but programs that engage local non-profits; bringing in guest speakers, showing classic films, showing repertory titles, all those pieces.
“The really cool thing about operating in Princeton is that Princeton, compared to other locations — most people have never heard of Ambler or Doylestown — is a brand,” he says. “So we’ve been able to do events at the Garden with directors and speakers that we haven’t been able to do at the other theaters. It’s the proximity to New York and Philadelphia, it’s the name recognition Princeton offers that gives us the opportunity to engage the community about film in a really interesting way that we haven’t been able to do to the same extent in the other theaters.”
One popular program is Film 101, a series that explores elements of filmmaking, film criticism, and film theory. Participants watch a designated classic film at their leisure on the platform of their choice, followed by an online meetup for a communal Zoom discussion led by an important figure in the film community. Lately the discussions have been led by Hannah Jack, a writer for Turner Classic Movies.
Collier says this is one case where adapting to COVID restrictions actually benefited the program. “We had been doing a similar program at the theater called ‘Prospects’ for which we invited professors to pick a film that was meaningful to them and present it at the theater,” he says. “We were doing a similar program at the Ambler, which had the initial grant for the Film 101 program. When the pandemic shut us down, we quickly pivoted, combining those two programs into one general Film 101 program, a virtual discussion group via Zoom.”
The thing that immediately became apparent to Collier was that the virtual meetup was a better approach. “It saved people a huge outlay of time,” he notes. “The great thing about the virtual program is that peoples show up ready to go; they’ve watched the film, they’ve digested it, they’ve done some additional research, they have their questions, their thoughts, and you’re not putting anyone on the spot right after the movie. The result is that these have been some of the most engaged discussions that we’ve ever had.”
(Having attended some Film 101 Zoom sessions myself, I was struck by the communal feel of seeing the faces of the other attendees on screen and having the opportunity to ask questions and interact virtually with a gathering of informed film buffs, some attending from as far away as California. That attendees don’t always see eye-to-eye on the merits of a particular film has made for some lively but civil discussions.)
“We wanted to get away from the webinar model,” says Collier. “We wanted to create a round-table feel, where you can join with a group of other film fans and have the chance to discuss a movie. Having a world-class moderator really helps.”
In this case Collier is referring to the previously mentioned Jack, who opens each discussion with an introduction to the film’s plot, cast, crew, and other behind-the-scenes tidbits that get the conversation rolling.
And the Film 101 program is about to be expanded, according to Collier. “Previously these programs have been geographically limited, so we could only share the professors and filmmakers from the surrounding community,” he says. “By presenting it virtually, we’ve now been able to share a number of Princeton professors with all four of our theaters.
“One of the things we’re working on as part of expanding the program is that we’re not limited to the professors in our own back yard. For example the Middle Eastern film series that we’re working on will be taught by an Iranian film maker. For the upcoming ‘Wes on Wednesdays’ Wes Anderson series, in advance of his newest film coming out in October, we’ll have speakers from across the U.S. from different universities who have written about Wes Anderson and are excited to participate. In a virtual world we’re not limited to who can physically be in the building, which is pretty awesome.”
For the Garden’s Outdoor Cinema Series, the theater partnered with Cherry Grove Farm in Lawrenceville and The Moving Picture Cinema, an independent outdoor mobile cinema unit, to bring family-friendly outdoor movie screenings to the community. “American Graffiti” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” have been screened to an appreciative, socially distanced crowd.
“We tried to put something together last year but had trouble finding the right venue in Princeton in town or on the university campus,” Collier says. But because of the Covid restrictions people weren’t comfortable. Cherry Grove offered us the space, and we were really excited to give it a try.
“We purposely tried to find movies that had some aspect of a food theme, because you’re on a working farm, or in the case of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ I was hoping a cow would go strolling by to give it that Pythonesque flavor.”
And the Garden has brought back its Hollywood Summer Nights program. Featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the silver screen, theatergoers once again have the opportunity to see Hollywood classics such as “The Big Sleep,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “The Big Lebowski” the way they were intended to be seen: on the big screen in the company of fellow movie lovers.
During the worst of the pandemic, the Garden was compelled to innovate and turned to streaming through its virtual cinema offerings as a source of revenue, although those offerings have now dwindled to a trickle as more theatres have opened their doors.
“When the theater had to close its doors physically, the art house distributors developed their own streaming platform to make their content available to independent theaters like ours,” Collier says. “We ran hundreds of films over the course of the year using that model, because we weren’t constrained by the number of screens we had. We essentially stopped that program as of this past July, because distributors have resumed pushing their content back out to theaters, and the number of titles has dwindled considerably. If that becomes an option in the future, it’s definitely something we’ll explore.”
Collier cannot say enough about the ongoing support of grantors (visit the theatre’s website for more information) and individual donors in keeping the Garden a vibrant hub of the Princeton community’s cultural life.
“We would not have reopened at all if not for the ongoing support of our members and donors,” he says. “That is the thing that got us through this incredibly difficult year. We’re lucky to be a nonprofit and to continue to have the support to continue doing what we’re doing.
“Just before the closure we received a donation from an anonymous individual to upgrade the projection at the Garden. We were able to do part of that over the closure period and install a new screen in theater number one, which actually offers us the ability to adjust the top and bottom masking, so we can make the screen as tall as we want. That’s great for classic films, which are as tall as they are wide.
“In the next phase we’re going to install a new digital projector in that auditorium, maybe by the end of the year but definitely before next summer in time for the Hollywood Summer Nights series of classics. And we’re also hoping to install 35 millimeter. That gift is going towards all those projects.”
Collier is optimistic about the future of the Garden and the viability of the traditional movie-going experience in general. “Despite all the talk by critics about streaming being the future, the past year has underscored the incredible downside to only being able to watch something in your house, only being served what an algorithm decides that you like and being offered the same kind of content over and over again.
“There is something communal about being with others in a movie theater; it brings the content alive in a different way when you’re sitting with an audience of strangers in the dark, when you can’t get up and change the wash, when you’re not playing with your kids at the same time or checking your phone. The kinds of movies that we show make that level of investment pay off.
“And our business model and the support of the community also allow us to take the time and the effort to build programs like the Film 101 series, to engage the community, and bring people together. We see ourselves as more than a movie theater; we are also a community center, a museum, and a cultural nonprofit. I think those distinctions are what’s going to allow us to survive in years to come.”
In 2017, NJ.com named the Garden “The Best Movie Theater in New Jersey.”
Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-279-1999. www.princetongardentheatre.org.