Seeing the big picture

More than doubling its number of screens and with a focus on film, education and community, The Picture House Regional Film Center is poised to capitalize on movie theaters’ comeback.

With Covid-19 lingering and streaming services still trending – Netflix stock’s tumble notwithstanding – do audiences still want to go to the movies?

“I think absolutely,” says Laura deBuys, president and executive director of The Picture House Regional Film Center, which includes The Picture House Pelham and The Picture House Bronxville. “People just love to get together to come and see a movie.”

Statistics would seem to back her. According to the Morning Consult — which gauges consumers’ return to pre-pandemic activities — 62% of Americans recently surveyed said they’d be comfortable going to a movie theater, a new high for that activity.

Recently, 275 movie lovers came together at The Picture House Pelham for one of its Film Club screenings, deBuys says.

She knows that “the industry did get a shake-up” with the coronavirus. Still, the film center is banking on the audience’s appetite — live and virtual — for its mix of films, educational programs and community events. So much so that the center has more than doubled its screening capacity with the January lease of an historic 1920s movie theater in Bronxville owned and formerly run as a three-screen multiplex by Bow Tie Partners. (The Picture House Pelham, which recently concluded its 100th anniversary celebration, has two screens.)

“It’s one organization, two locations,” deBuys says, “and you can see different movies from place to place.”

Something for everyone

Those films are a mix of arthouse and blockbuster fare, she adds:  “What used to be thought of as independent movies are the majority of films now.” That’s in part because of the pandemic-produced lag time in generating the volume of commercial movies needed. Recently, the film center has featured “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” part of the Marvel Studios’ oeuvre of superhero films, starring the ever-hot Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Year of the Dog,” PBS “Masterpiece Mystery!’s” “Sherlock”) and grossing more than $200 million domestically. The film center has also done well with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the critically acclaimed existential dramedy about a struggling Chinese-American business owner (Michelle Yeoh), audited by the Internal Revenue Service, who must connect with parallel universes to save the world. Another critically acclaimed fantasy on the marquee recently was “Petite Maman,” about a girl who in grieving the loss of her maternal grandmother encounters her own mother as a child. 

This month, the film center is slated to feature “Top Gun: Maverick,” with Tom Cruise returning to the titular Navy pilot role that made him a superstar; “Jurassic World Dominion,” the sixth installment in the “Jurassic Park” dinosaur extravaganza; and “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” the second movie sequel to the PBS “Masterpiece” phenomenon, which finds the Crawleys in the south of France to learn more about the mysterious villa everyone’s favorite haughty dowager countess (Maggie Smith) has inherited.

Layers of education

But the film center hasn’t shied away from edgier fare. The Picture House Film Club recently screened “Happening,” about a pregnant student’s encounter with abortion in the 1960s — a film that has gained a higher profile with the U.S. Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion indicating the court would reverse Roe v. Wade. In its 24th season, Film Club offers subscribers a series of unannounced films and post-screening discussions with the movers and shakers beyond the pictures, six weeks at a time at The Picture House Pelham. The club, perennially sold out, was a mainstay during the pandemic, with Marshall Fine, film critic in residence from 2014 to 2021, hosting and curating the series. Today, Film Club is hosted by Stephen J. Whitty, film critic of The Star-Ledger.

Despite the pandemic, deBuys says, “we had great access to stars and directors, because everyone was available on Zoom,” including actors Viggo Mortensen and Lance Henriksen for the 2021 family dementia drama “Falling.”

There are also “Film Studies for Adults” classes online and the series “Hayley Atwell Selects,” in which the British actress (agent, later Capt. Peggy Carter in the Marvel universe, PBS “Masterpiece’s” “Howards End”) teams with colleagues to present movies for online discussion. Most recently, she was joined by Oscar-nominated Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) to discuss the 1997 Southern Gothic drama “Eve’s Bayou.” 

With children’s film education, “it’s more about filmmaking and storytelling,” deBuys says. The Picture House offers curriculum-based programs for schools as well as a year-round film program for elementary schools. Older students make documentaries about nonprofits that the organizations can then use in their marketing campaigns. These programs have run in Pelham, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Bronxville, Mount Vernon and Yonkers. There are also after-school screenings and classes on how to make a trailer and summer camps for kindergarten through 12th grade. 

With an operating budget of $2.4 million and a staff of eight (plus part-time projectionists and concession-stand workers) for both venues, deBuys says she wants to create educational spaces at The Picture House Bronxville and to present more concerts and spoken-word events as well.

“We just feel the community wants to see a variety of different things,” she says, noting that past events have ranged from a yuletide screening of the holiday chestnut “It’s a Wonderful Life” to a Westchester Women’s Agenda panel on the Ava Duverney series “When They See Us,” about the five young men falsely accused of raping and beating Trisha Meili, the woman known for years only as the Central Park Jogger.

DeBuys would seem perfectly poised to accomplish the film center’s goals. Growing up in Maryland — where she attended the Garrison Forest School in Baltimore County before heading to Northampton, Massachusetts, and Smith College — deBuys was “always interested in the theater.” That interest led to a career on Broadway as a stage manager of shows as diverse as Michael Frayn’s riotous “Noises Off” and his more cerebral “Benefactors.” She went on to serve as marketing director of a theater technology company before taking the helm of The Picture House Regional Film Center on Jan. 1, 2014.

“It is,” she says, “my dream job.”

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