by Nat Frothingham
MONTPELIER — On March 15, it will be six months since James O’Hanlon took ownership of The Savoy Theater from Terry Youk.
Since its founding in 1981 by Rick Winston and Gary Ireland, The Savoy Theater has been true to its roots in the art house cinema tradition of bringing (in the words of its website) “the best independent and foreign film” to audiences in Central Vermont and beyond.
That’s not all. Since 1997, The Savoy Theater, in concert with its not-for-profit partner organization, Focus on Film, has organized and presented the Green Mountain Film Festival, an eight- to 10-day worldwide celebration of film in Montpelier. Planning for this year’s festival (to be held March 17 to 25) began last August; and to date, the festival has already received 162 film submissions from 23 countries.
Talking by phone to The Bridge, O’Hanlon said he dates his serious interest in film to his student days at the State University of New York at Purchase. When he and his wife moved back East from San Francisco and settled in Vermont, he discovered The Savoy Theater and over the years his involvement has grown.
Back when Rick Winston and Andrea Serota were running The Savoy, O’Hanlon had a short film that was screened during one of the Green Mountain Film festivals. Later, when The Savoy launched a renovation project, O’Hanlon volunteered some time to help out.
“I knew Eric,” said O’Hanlon, referring to longtime Savoy employee Eric Reynolds. Reynolds asked O’Hanlon if he’d like to be a projectionist and O’Hanlon took the position. “I love the place,” said O’Hanlon about The Savoy. “I love film.” He felt fortunate that there was a movie house like The Savoy in Montpelier.
From time to time O’Hanlon wondered what it would be like to own The Savoy, and to be part of a movie theater that had a strong connection to its local community. O’Hanlon liked what Winston and Serota had achieved with The Savoy. But at the time they decided to sell The Savoy to Youk, there were big changes taking place in the film and entertainment industry.
The Savoy was faced with competition from a glut of entertainment options. People were renting films, first on videocassettes, then later on DVDs. Companies such as Netflix were sending films through the mail to their subscribers. Later, Netflix was streaming films, film series, original films and TV shows online. According to one source, by January 2017 Netflix had almost 50 million U.S. subscribers, and over 93 million subscribers worldwide. Said O’Hanlon, “There was this real feeling when Rick and Andrea sold (The Savoy) that the model was dying out.”
But when Youk took over, said O’Hanlon, he made some smart new moves. Youk moved the video store to a different downtown location. He made a second theater space downstairs. He got a liquor license. These moves gave him new avenues for making money.
“I try to have two different films running downstairs,” O’Hanlon said. In time The Savoy became more than just a movie house where people see a film and then go home. O’Hanlon came to realize, in a powerful way, what it could be like to see a film on the big screen in a theater with an audience of other people — to be immersed in the film experience. The Savoy became a place to see a film and meet other people.
He also began to see other, encouraging changes about small movie houses like The Savoy. He went from thinking that theaters were dying out and that everything that could be said in film had been said, to seeing “some amazing, great films” being made today from filmmakers who are “mining new territory.”
Some of the changes in filmmaking were provoked by new technology. “You can make a film with your phone,” O’Hanlon remarked. “You must have good audio,” he cautioned, but you don’t have to be a billionaire to make a film. The result was that filmmaking was becoming more democratic. New, arresting films were being made by independent filmmakers — and the big studios had to take notice.
All told, O’Hanlon now finds himself almost bullish not just about new films, but about the improving prospects for movie houses like The Savoy. He’s been encouraged by a recent and steady run of good films and good audiences. “It began with ‘Moonlight’ which I think is the best film of 2016,” (‘Moonlight’ won Best Picture at the Oscars on Feb. 26). We had a good, four-week run with that, he said. “And the good run continued with ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Eagle Huntress,’ and ‘La La Land.’”
O’Hanlon believes there are new audiences out there, and as The Savoy’s new owner he’s committed “to getting people in the door who haven’t been in there before.” “You can’t exclude people,” he said. Then he mentioned a range of people — radical and conservative, small business owners, groups and subgroups. “I want to show content that has meaning. But I don’t want to exclude people,” he said. “Why alienate anyone?”
Currently showing at The Savoy is “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film about race that explores the thinking of writer, novelist and activist James Baldwin. Up until just a few days ago “I Am Not Your Negro” was playing in one-night shows around the state. But it is at The Savoy for at least two weeks, and said O’Hanlon, “It looks like a pretty strong film.”