The Chautauqua Cinema, currently owned by Bill Schmidt, is hidden at the corner of Hurst and Wythe. Built of pressed brick with terra cotta trimmings, the pitch-roofed theater seats about 350. Since its construction in 1895 as Higgins Hall, the cinema has become a spot of wonder for all ages.
Through the installation of Dolby Digital six-channel sound in 2003, HD digital projection in 2007, and conversion to DCI digital distribution in 2014, Schmidt is determined to provide the best viewing experience for Chautauquans.
By 2014, major film studios stopped converting 35mm film, rebranding the standard format to DCP: “Digital copy-protected (media).” With the new equipment totaling $100,000, Schmidt turned to his patrons. Hundreds came forward, accepting lifetime admissions in exchange for donor statuses. Through this program, Schmidt came to truly get to know his audience personally.
“Programming is the hardest, most interesting part,” Schmidt said. “I have a spreadsheet of movies that might interest me, and might interest Chautauqua. We’re stretching that boundary; we’ve gone all the way to horror. I showed ‘Get Out,’ a brilliantly made debut from a great mind. Did everyone who came to see it love it? No. It may have been pushing people too far, but it’s a horror film, and a funny one. People come with their expectations — I’m trying to give people what they want.”
Movie discs addressed to “Projectionist” are sent regularly from Technicolor distributors.
“The biggest hit we ever had was the premiere for ‘For The Bible Tells Me So,’ Schmidt said. “We sold that out three days straight, every show. Thousands of people came. … One of the biggest unexpected blockbuster hits I remember was ‘March of the Penguins.’ Turns out everybody wanted to see penguins.”
The cinema’s main projector runs with Dolby’s cinema server, Doremi, with three hard drives that run simultaneously during each movie. They can collectively hold six terabytes of film — equivalent to about 15 movies.
Roger Ebert said that “cinema is a machine that generates empathy.”
“It’s a way to explore humanity and culture with three points,” Schmidt said, “music, visuals and a great story.”