It’s Saturday night at a makeshift movie house in North Charleston, and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are doing the sorts of things you don’t see often in movies these days: smoking like chimneys and slinging witty banter like it’s a game of table tennis.
True, the crowd doesn’t pack the seats like it would have in 1940, when the screwball comedy His Girl Friday first hit screens. But on a muggy summer night in the chilly dark of a cinder-block room, it might as well be 1940 — Grant and Russell are stars again.
The Greater Park Circle Film Society charged $5 a head for the evening’s entertainment, a price that included a bag of popcorn and a seat next to some of the city’s biggest movie buffs. Nicholai Burton, while holding his peace for the duration of the film, bubbles over with adulations and trivia once it’s over.
Slightly built, with wispy dark hair above thick-rimmed spectacles, Burton looks like the archetype of a media-savvy late-twentysomething. He knows that Russell hired her own writer to inject more zingy comebacks into the dialogue. He knows that, in the play on which His Girl Friday was based, Russell’s character was actually a man.
For two and a half years now, Burton has had an outlet for his boundless film geekery. At first twice a month, now once a week, he and the Film Society have screened documentaries, independently produced films, and black-and-white classics in the heart of North Charleston’s old downtown.
Directing the Film Society is not Burton’s job. In fact, nobody in the organization has made a nickel off of it. But with some elbow grease, along with a critical mass of viewers and volunteers, the upstart group of cinephiles could become an artistic force to be reckoned with. That’s what happened in Columbia.
The capital city’s Nickelodeon Theatre, also a nonprofit film society, started off small in 1979 with a group of University of South Carolina students watching rented film prints on a 16-millimeter projector. Now, the Nickelodeon (or the Nick, as locals call it) is a cultural hub, hosting two or three screenings every day and an ever-expanding annual arts festival featuring not only independent films but crafts, music, and culinary arts. What’s more, it pulls in enough ticket sales, grants, and gifts every year to pay nine employees.
Burton isn’t quitting his day job any time soon. For now, the Film Society does well to break even on a screening night. But he has his own modest dreams.
“I don’t want a 16-screen IMAX theater,” Burton says. “I just want one or two screens with comfy seats, good beers, and people sharing the love of a good story.”
Burton started taking movies seriously as a high school junior in Greenville. That was when he discovered the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movies,” a list of all-time favorites based on a poll of film industry leaders.
“I was like, ‘Dude, mom, have you ever seen The Maltese Falcon? It’s amazing,'” Burton says. “And she was like, ‘Whatever, we’re gonna watch Conan the Destroyer.'”
At Clemson University, where he studied French and international trade from 2000 to 2004. This is when he saw the French film Amélie, “the greatest movie of all time,” he says. Burton fell in with a student group that showed indie films in the student union theater.
He took a job at Blackbaud after college and moved to the Park Circle neighborhood in North Charleston. It was there that he met realtor James Sears, and the two started a local news blog called MyParkCircle.com. The blog didn’t last, but one of the ideas generated by it did.
The site ran an informal survey of Park Circlers asking what kind of amenities they’d like to see in the area. The No. 1 request was for a locally owned grocery. Sears and Burton didn’t have the money to start one, so they went for No. 2, a neighborhood movie theater.
“Now, it’s one thing for people to say, ‘Yeah, we’d like to have a movie house,'” says Sears. “It’s another thing to have people show up and actually support it.”
They showed their first film, the anti-consumerist documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, in December 2008 in space rented from the South of Broadway Theatre Company on East Montague Avenue. The screen was a discarded artist’s canvas painted white, the speakers dated back to the 1980s, and the projector – a Craigslist find – was more suited to Powerpoint presentations than cinematic arts.
In those early days, the Film Society took notes from the Nickelodeon. Larry Hembree, executive director at the Nick, sat down with Sears and Burton in Park Circle’s Madra Rua Irish Pub to offer advice on “what to do when you don’t have any money,” as Burton puts it.
Bob Williamson, vice president for products at software company SIOS Technology, was also at the meeting, where they went over the brass tacks of running a nonprofit organization. But more than anything, he remembers Hembree telling them to focus on the moviegoing experience.
“People are coming to you instead of going to a big commercial theater,” Williamson remembers Hembree saying. “Make it a personal experience. … Make it memorable.”
The Film Society has made a few upgrades since 2008. The canvas has been replaced by a genuine theater screen, someone donated a 5.1 receiver to go with upgraded speakers, and a patron sold the Society a spanking-new Optoma 1080p projector for just $200. And they don’t have to pay rent anymore.
Marty Besancon, North Charleston’s cultural arts director, helped get the Film Society into a city-owned building on Jenkins Avenue that once housed the city’s first police station. Besancon says the Film Society fits in Park Circle.
“It’s becoming a little nucleus of arts-related things,” she says.
Williamson is the Film Society’s treasurer now, and he says that, while expenses are down since moving to the city-owned building, it still costs $150 on average to buy screening rights to a film.
Sometimes the Society shows public-domain films like His Girl Friday to recoup losses. In recent weeks, audience sizes have been in the 20-to-30 range — not enough, Burton says.
“If I could turn out 40 to 60 people a show, we’d be rocking,” Burton says. The goal is to screen two films per week by this time next year and, in the long run, to get the Film Society its own building and set money aside to fund local filmmakers’ projects.
Over in Columbia, the Nick has gotten to that point, and then some. Associate Director Andy Smith, who also directs the Indie Grits film festival, says the Nick has become more professional over the past five years. It takes a paid staff to pull off what that theater does, and Smith foresees a shift from being an all-volunteer organization in the Film Society’s future.
“To really grow at some point, they’re going to have to take that leap,” he says. “If you’re ever really thinking about doing nightly programming, it’s just going to be so burdensome if it’s not their day job.” Smith also sees competition from Netflix and online movie streaming as a challenge for all film groups. “Our big mantra now is that we need to be more than a movie theater, because movie theaters are dying out,” he says. Hence the Indie Grits festival. Hence Smith and Hembree’s constant cross-pollination with other members of the Columbia artistic community.
For now, Burton and the Film Society are having fun, like last Halloween when they brought in two keyboardists to accompany the silent film Nosferatu. They are in no hurry to make this a full-time gig.
“I have no delusions of grandeur. It’s not going to happen in two years,” Burton says. “If Charleston is the movie town I think it is, it might happen in 10 years.”
Burton acknowledges that moviegoers can also catch independently produced films at James Island’s Terrace Theater. Burton is friends with Terrace owner Paul Brown and has collaborated with him before, but he says the Film Society can step a few paces farther out in left field because of its nonprofit status.
“The Terrace has to turn a profit,” Burton says. “We can be a little bit more daring.”
Mounting a bar stool one Thursday evening at EVO, roughly across the street from the theater where the Film Society showed its first movies, Burton recognizes most of the wait staff and at least half of the patrons. And anyone he talks with at length has to answer a question: What are your top three favorite movies of the moment?
His top three? Short Circuit (“Ally Sheedy was the girl, the crazy one from The Breakfast Club.”), The Wizard (“It was like one big advertisement for Nintendo.”), and Assassination of a High School President (starring Mischa Barton and Bruce Willis). Elitist he is not.
While the Film Society is always open to suggestions, Burton swells with pride when people trust his taste in movies. He keeps an eye on the film festival circuits and looks for up-and-coming directors whose work will fit in the Film Society’s budget.
“A lot of our regulars don’t even know what’s showing,” he says. “They just say, ‘It’s Saturday. They’re going to show something good.'”