A lone screen in a multiplex world

They used to be scattered all over the map, especially in cities and college towns: nonchain movie houses that specialized in foreign movies, independents, and classic oldies. They were places where you could see cult favorites like "King of Hearts" or "Harold and Maude" or maybe a midnight show of the Marx Bros.

Twenty-five years ago in the Boston area, for instance, there were art movies at the Exeter Street Theater, foreign films and classics at the funky Central Square or the hipper Orson Welles Cinema, and a different double feature every day at the Harvard Square. Those theaters are long gone, except for the Harvard Square, now owned by Loews Theater and showing new releases.

The two real survivors of that era, the Coolidge Corner in Brookline and the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, are now nonprofits. The Coolidge has gone the art-house route. The Brattle – located near Harvard University – has chosen the riskier task, continuing to position itself as a repertory theater. They have different films almost every day, with an occasional weeklong booking for a première.

No one knows for sure how many repertory theaters are still running in the US. There may be as few as a couple of dozen, but they are supplemented by film series sponsored by museums and universities, so the number is misleading.

Ned Hinkleand Ivy Moylan have been codirectors of the 240-seat Brattle since March of last year. "The Brattle is not just an entertainment venue; it's an educational site as well," Mr. Hinkle says.

This summer's schedule has been as eclectic as ever. There's been a retrospective of director Robert Altman including "M*A*S*H" and not-yet-on-video "California Split." A film noir series on femmes fatales has included such classics as "Double Indemnity" and "Gilda." On Thursdays, there's an ongoing tribute to Italian horror filmmaker Mario Bava with some of the films shown for the first time in their original European version – such as "Black Sabbath" (1963) with Boris Karloff.

How do theater owners decide what to show? "It's a combination of what hasn't been around lately and, conversely, what is there buzz about?" Moylan says.

Hinkle and Moylan often get ideas from looking at calendars from theaters like theirs, such as the Film Forum in New York, which devotes one of its screens to repertory, and the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. Often those theaters can get a studio to strike a new print of a neglected older film or work with a distributor eager to get a package of older films into other theaters.

At times, however, the job is closer to being a detective than a film booker. Hinkle recalls wanting a 20-year-old film for a series on teenage movies.

They not only couldn't book it – they couldn't even find a distributor who had it, he says. The film had simply vanished.

Then Hinkle noticed it was playing at a film series in New York, and found out who had the rights to the movie. It turned out to be the original producer, who wasn't eager to have his private print in circulation.

Hinkle tried anyway, and the office manager told him: "We really don't do theatrical screenings, but I went to Harvard, so you can have it." The Brattle and theaters like it, unfortunately, can't promise financial returns to justify a studio's expense of making a new copy of a film.

That's a claim the New York Film Forum can back up. "I'm in a different situation from the rest of the country," says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming for Film Forum. "We première new prints."

So when Mr. Goldstein arranges for one- or two-week showings of new prints of the films of Akira Kurosawa (such as "The Seven Samurai" and "Rashomon"), they are subsequently available for theaters like the Brattle to book.

Dennis Bartok, programmer for the American Cinematheque, notes that getting classic American films from the '40s and '50s isn't very difficult. The problem is with films from the '70s and '80s, where the color has faded on the old prints, and the studio sees no reason to strike a new one. Tougher still are foreign films no longer in US distribution.

Getting the films is only one side of the equation. Finding the titles audiences will pay money to see is the other.

When James Toback's offbeat "Harvard Man" was looking for theaters, the Brattle was a perfect fit. It became what the independents call "an anchor film" – something they can add to their schedule and make the money they need to get by. Of course what will pack one theater may do indifferently elsewhere, so theater proprietors have to know their audience.

Hits of past eras still draw an audience. The Brattle is legendary as the birthplace of the Bogart cult in the '50s and '60s as younger viewers discovered "Casablanca" and "The Maltese Falcon." Those films still work, as do "Citizen Kane," "Breathless," and newer classics such as "Blade Runner" and "Brazil."

"It used to be the only place you could see these movies was at theaters like the Brattle," Hinkle says. But with VCRs and DVDs, not to mention cable channels like American Movie Classics, people can program their own repertory theaters at home. The key to getting people into theaters, he says, is "to be conscious of what's cinematic."

It's a delicate balancing act. The Brattle usually schedules "Recent Raves," art-house hits at the end of their run, getting an extra showing for people who might have missed them. Their summer calendar has ranged from Burt Lancaster in "The Killers" to David Bowie in "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" to a new print of the French classic "Pépé Le Moko."

Not even HBO programs like this.

"The Brattle," says Hinkle, "is like a museum for film."

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