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VOL. 44 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2020

Belcourt is proof individuals can make a difference

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If you value range and a bit of quirkiness in your movie viewing, consider this: Belcourt Theatre’s showings for February include the Oscar winning “Parasite,” the film noir classic “Key Largo,” the Hitchcock psychodrama “Rebecca,” the horror movie “Zombie,” the acclaimed boxing documentary “When We Were Kings” and, to top it all off, the Cat Video Fest.

Yes. Cat Video Fest. It’s a nationwide promotion that benefits local rescue operations, including Nashville Cat Rescue, which will have its Catmobile on hand to facilitate adoptions.

The festival was such a Belcourt hit last year that it’s getting twice the screenings this year, two each Feb. 29 and March 1.

I don’t know about you, but they had me at “Cat.”

Kitties aside, I submit that all this is exactly the kind of programming an independent, nonprofit art house like the Belcourt is supposed to offer. We’re lucky to have it. And we almost didn’t.

Back in January 1999, things were looking grim. The theater had been a Hillsboro Village staple for more than 70 years at that point, including serving as home for the Grand Old Opry in the 1930s and Nashville Children’s Theater. The addition of a second screen in 1966 made it the city’s first “twin cinema.”

Earlier in the ’90s it was surviving on a reliable mix of quality but not blockbuster offerings like the gender-bending “Crying Game,” the Beatles origin tale “Backbeat” and the wonderful yet heartbreaking “Remains of the Day.”

But business was eroding, as were the facilities and equipment itself, and the Belcourt’s closing was announced. A week before it took place, the Scene film critic Jim Ridley lamented:

“If the Belcourt ends up demolished – a likely possibility – it will join the beautiful old Tennessee Theatre, the Inglewood, the Belle Meade and all the other historic movie palaces that we allowed to fall or be closed,” he wrote. “Each theater was irreplaceable, a measure of our civic history and aspirations. ... Lose the Belcourt, and we lose one more irretrievable piece of our identity.”

Amid the gloom, however, Ridley mentioned a “faint hope” for the Belcourt’s survival, an effort by a small group to form a nonprofit to buy the theater and continue it as a theater.

Wonder of wonders, it worked. After roughly a year and a half, the nonprofit, Belcourt YES!, reopened the theater in June 2000. It’s been open ever since – save for seven months for a needed renovation in 2016 that included adding a small, third screen and expanding the restrooms – and Nashville is the better for it.

Toby Leonard, the programming director, described the balancing act that has the Belcourt thriving. There are the new releases; the repertory films, or oldies that the Belcourt presents; and theater rentals with screenings by all manner of groups.

“We had a group of orthodontists that were looking at teeth one morning,” he says.

Inspiration for what to show comes from a variety of sources, Leonard says. Relationships with studios and distributors that put new releases out provide one pipeline. Leonard also attends the big festivals like Sundance and Toronto that provide looks at coming independent and international films.

“It’s kind of our role to filter through a lot of that and bring out the gems,” he says.

Gems like “Parasite,” the South Korean film that just became the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. Leonard saw it at Toronto and loved it.

“I thought, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to show that.’”

Smart move. It’s been playing since October, the kind of run that allows the Belcourt to program some other films that are worthwhile but don’t have that kind of audience pull or staying power.

In addition to the new offerings, the huge backlog of older movies provides the working stock for retrospectives like the recent Noir Fest 3, which in addition to “Key Largo,” a Bogey and Bacall vehicle, featured “The Asphalt Jungle,” directed by John Huston, and “The Big Clock,” starring Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan and Charles Laughton.

“We’ve got a staff full of people who love movies, so the ideas can come from just about anyone,” Leonard said. The public gets involved, too.

“People love to send in requests, and I love to read them.”

Sounds like an invitation. Leonard’s email address is toby@belcourt.org. And remember: Cat. Video. Fest.

Did I mention they sell beer and wine?

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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