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The dream behind the screen


The founder of the Cape Ann Community Cinema, has a big vision.  In this era of big blockbuster movies and corporate theaters buried in busy commercial malls, Robert Newton sees the possibility of cozy community cinemas flourishing on main streets, bringing people together around conversations that matter, and becoming lively hubs for building local community.  His 3-year experiment with the Cape Ann Community Cinema, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, offers plentiful evidence that the idea of a Community Cinema is not only viable but can succeed beyond all expectations.  Robert Newton is one of the most dedicated and passionate community builders I have ever met, and has many fans on Cape Ann.  Reading through the comments on the cinema’s facebook page will give you a sense of how much social capital and good energy he has helped generate in that community.  I had interviewed Robert on December 18, 2008, when the Cape Ann Community Cinema was only three months old, and still located at the Gloucester Stage Theater.   Three years later to the month (December 2011), I interviewed Robert again, on a skype call from Bali, to ask for an update which you can find at the end of the interview.  I was delighted to hear that the cinema is thriving in its main street location, and Robert is well on his way to realizing his dreams.


Interview with Robert Newton (November 2008)

Tesa: So, Robert, where did this passion for Community Cinema come from?

Robert Newton, Photo by Good Morning Gloucester

Robert: It all started with my love of movies, film, cinema, as well as my love of story-telling.  All the best films have a great story at their core.  My first real job was in a video store in Hamilton.  I eventually purchased it with my college tuition, much to the chagrin of my parents and family!   My favorite part of this experiment, beside being in business for myself and being my own boss, was my interactions with customers.  Our connection usually started with a discussion about the movies.  I knew all the films in the store.  This was a time when 1000 movies was a big library.  Eventually, I built one with 25,000 movies in Worcester.  The point is that I got to know a lot of my customers personally.  They would often invite me to visit, or bring dinner to me.  This is how I first got to try fiddle head ferns!  And it’s that kind of connection that made things special for all of us.  I was not just a guy making money at $2.50 cents a pop.  It was a lot more than that.

Tesa: And what inspired you to build a Community Cinema here in Gloucester?

Robert: I was born in Worcester but my mother’s parents are from Gloucester and I spent most of my summers here.   So coming here wasn’t just putting a thumb tack on a map at random.  I knew this place, and the fact that it was an island made me feel like it was the perfect place to incubate this concept.   Plus nothing beats waking up to the smell of the ocean.

Tesa:  Oh, could you say a little bit more about Gloucester being the perfect place!  As you know, that’s a favorite conversation, amongst locals!

Robert: It’s a self-contained community.  The physical boundaries are not blurred and although we are only a bridge away from the mainland, that bridge is a big psychological barrier for a lot of folks.  There are people here who have never left the island and would not leave it for anything.  The more time one spends here, the more reasons one finds to stay.  Driving over the bridge is something that many people avoid doing, if they don’t have to.   The idea of keeping these entertainment dollars local stems from that.  Why send our local dollars into another town or state as happens with most of those corporate cinemas?  We are sending our voice and votes away.   I say, let’s keep them at home and get to know our neighbors at the same time.

Tesa:  And how does this connect with your larger vision for a nation wide movement of community cinemas?

Robert: The internet was created as a defense network and it was designed in such a way that if any part of the network was attacked or failed, the rest of the network could continue to function without it.   So, this concept of not depending entirely on outside sources for food, water, and entertainment comes from that same idea that we could go on by our own means.  I’m not wanting to spin off a larger movement of community cinemas, as much as I’m wanting to teach people how to fish.  I want to provide others with the tools they need to create something like this wherever they happen to be.  I would rather provide a good example, and some tools, rather than directly catalyze something which would be dependent upon my own organization to grow.

Tesa:  So, you want to create the conditions for community cinemas to emerge anywhere, in a self-organized manner.

Robert: Yes, anywhere in the world.  And the plan is very elastic.  I don’t want to offer a bible by which anyone must do things.   I can offer a lose framework, meant for community improvisation which is key to make this kind of cinema work anywhere.

Tesa: What do you see as the core ingredients of this OurTown Cinema idea?

Robert: In one word, passion.  People have to want this, and if they do, then we can then give them tools to focus that passion and apply it to very real situations and conditions in their own communities.  It’s not so much about passion for film, as it is about passion for change.  Movies are just a means by which we can bring people together to talk about the issues they care about, light as well as serious.  What’s most important is that people are talking.  It is through talking and making personal or business connections that other things get done.

Tesa: So, it’s like creating the relationship web that can support meaningful change?

Robert: Right.  Big ideas are founded on people not things.

Tesa: I would like to go back to what you see as core elements of success for a cinema, and for a movement of cinemas.  

Robert: You need a catalyst.  And I would recommend that you have two able lieutenants to step up should you need to take any kind of break for whatever reason.  My plan was and still is to train someone to do what I do.  It of course would not be exactly what I do, because I like to make myself irreplaceable in some way!  (He smiles)  You just don’t train someone to do your job for less money!   It’s important to have that one catalyst, but part of what we can offer is a way to bring more of those leadership qualities out in the community.  It would be great if every community had someone ready to take this on.  The movies are almost peripheral in this model.

Tesa: What is central then?

Robert Newton, Photo by Gloucester Daily Times

Robert: That there be a community-builder.  That’s more important than to have a movie buff, because building community is something that’s more accessible than a wide and deep knowledge of film.

Tesa: And what kind of tools would you want to make available?

Robert: Concise HOW TO guides based on knowledge and experience.  These will be available to anyone who wants to attempt to seed a community cinema where they live.   In the short term, that’s what we will offer.  We can give them the keys to the car.  If they want us to provide actual fuel for the engine, we could provide that as well.  That could include programming films that we can recommend, and that we can also provide.  Since not everyone can be a film expert, that’s where we could avail ourselves as needed.  One of the aspects of Community Cinema is that the programming reflects the needs and the interests of the community.  There is a film for virtually every need and interest there is and that’s one of the ways that we can be valuable to these community cinemas in the long term.

Tesa: Could you say more about how you build community around the Community Cinema?

Robert: There are two major ways to build community through community cinema.  One is reaching out to all the community groups in the area and letting them know that you have a community space, and that you have an interest in making it available to them, to support their work.   And the other is reaching out to local businesses in the area and including them in a variety of ways.  You can have a free movie night sponsored by a local restaurant, or a prominent local business.   You can actively advertise that business on your pre-show advertising roll on your website etc.

Tesa:  And in your dream outcome, Robert, what would be happening?

Robert: I’d like to see every community in America, that needs something like this, be able to stage it.

Tesa: And here on Cape Ann?   What would happen if this became successful beyond your wildest dreams?

Robert: The cinema would become a self-sustaining entity that can go on without me.   I want to be able to impart what I know and what I have learned in my 20 years in business, so that my experience can live on, even if I were no longer in the picture.

I’d also like the recognition of the concept.  Ideally, when someone hears the name Cape Ann Community Cinema, they wouldn’t be asking “what’s that?”  I chose the name because it says who we are, what we do, and where we are.  It’s on Cape Ann.  It fosters community, and it’s a cinema.  I want people to know who we are and what we do.   When we get to a point where we are doing less awareness building than we are programming, that will be a mark of success.   The biggest deal is to get people aware of you.

Being open seven days a week would be another mark of success, because everyone wants access.  The week end is pay-the-bills time.  As a self-sustaining company, we need to pay the rent, lights, heat and licensing on the film., but the rest of the week, like  Wednesdays and Thursdays, are days we hold open for more socially relevant film offerings, local films, private get together.  The whole idea of having time for mothers and children and their young children to gather arose from a need that wasn’t being met by larger cinemas and community houses.  We were able to provide a low cost alternative to packing the kids in the car and taking them to movies.  This is a great first experience for children who had never gone to the movies before. We had a bunch of 2 and 3 years old who had their first experience here.  That was pretty amazing to see.

Tesa:  That’s really sweet!  What are some other community needs that are not well met by standard theaters but that you have the capacity to handle?

Robert: We have much greater latitude with programming because our decisions are made locally and without a lot of contractual obligations to movie studios.  If a community wants to show big Hollywood movies, that’s fine.  We can do that too.   There are very few films that we can’t get.  One of the most important thing a community cinema needs to offer is outstanding customer service.  You can’t just be a place that shows movies.  You have to be able to engage customers regarding what they have experienced in your cinema.  You need to be able to determine what they want to see, and what they would to do with the space you provided them.  They need to know that it is their place too, and that they have access to it, that they can contribute their input, host an event here, volunteer, or have a more formal role, like being a board member.

Tesa: What have been your most exciting and inspiring experiences here so far?

Robert: Even though we are a community cinema and we service primarily a local area, we sometimes show films that will inspire people to go at huge length to attend.  We showed a beautiful movie, during our first month, called the Singing Revolution.  Some people drove from Boston and the South Shore and Portsmouth in New Hampshire just to experience this film, and we gave them a nice comfortable place in which to experience this story.  Watching movie should be an experience.   That’s something that you can’t duplicate at home.  And that’s the power we are interested in tapping.   And, of course, seeing people in wonderment about the fact that someone took a chance to deliver something like this.  That’s always very satisfying for me!

Tesa:  Well, I’m definitely one of those people!  Your  willingness to do whatever it takes to bring your vision into reality despite the many challenges you face as a new organization is really inspiring.  What are the things you are doing to build awareness about the cinema now?

Robert: We have a email blast every week that goes to five dozen local news and community groups.  And then we have a growing list of close to a thousand customers from the area. We also have a weekly press release, noting issues that are important to local folks.  In February, we’ll be showing “One More Dead Fish.”  That will command a full house, but we can’t do that unless the public knows about it.   So we do our part in getting the local press aware of what we are showing, far in advance.   We also have partnerships with businesses that are now promoting us.

Tesa: And what do you feel you most need to succeed, Robert?  How can people in the community help you?

Robert:  It’s really as simple as people coming to the movies.  We sell discount tickets for as low as $5, if you purchase them in advance.  Bringing friends is another great help, and even more valuable than when you just tell them to come.   I have seen community cinemas fail because people assume that it will always be around for them to experience when they are ready.

Tesa: Is there anything else I haven’t asked you about, that you would like to address?

Robert:  Yes, we talked about many of the non-physical aspect of what a successful Community Cinema, but I also want to point out that the physical elements are really important.  You need the physical tools with which to do the job, a good wide projector and decent sound, a screen and comfortable seats.   I won’t go to small cinemas if I know that I’ll be aching when I get up!

Tesa: I think many people are with you on this one!   Thanks for making the time to talk, Robert.   And best wishes with everything!


Three years later  – December 30, 2011

Tesa: It’s been a little over three years since we last talked.  And as I reviewed our last conversation, I was struck by how many of your dreams have already come true, Robert.  That’s pretty remarkable!  The cinema is now on main street.   You have just celebrated its third birthday, and it has become a thriving community hub here on Cape Ann.   You now have a lot of local partners and fans all over town.   You are open seven days a week, and regularly run a full house.   Are you happy with what you have accomplished so far?

Robert: Yes, I am very happy.   This project was a largely crickets and tumble weeds during the first season, but the dream has now become reality.    We had 160 people here on a Wednesday night this week for the screening of Amigo by John Sayles.   And he was actually there for the screening!  Two days ago, we hosted Chris Cooper, our first oscar winning actor.  He starred in American Beauty, Adaptation and Lone Star.   The best part is that we did not book him.  He just showed up.   We have really widened our geographical reach.  We now have people coming in from as far as New Hampshire and Maine for certain presentations.  When we hosted Liv Ulman, we had people in attendance from eight states.   She said of our cinema that “Bergman would have loved this place.”

Tesa:  That must have felt really good!   What about the community-building focus of the Cinema?   What has been happening on that front?

Robert: We now have various groups renting the place regularly for meetings.  Some of them have stepped up and curated film series.  We have a new group called Artists After Hours.  The local Occupy Movement is also doing a film series here.   We are starting to do regular dinner and movie events.   We have done potlucks and catered meals.   In February, we will be hosting the filmmaker of a film called the Red Machine, a spy thriller that takes place in the late 30s, and so we are planning to have a Great Depression potluck!  The meals will be entirely made of budget foods like spam, craft macaroni and cheese, and green bean casserole made with Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables, made in Gloucester obviously.  Food is a very important part of the Community Cinema experience, and we have a very generous BYO policy.

Tesa:  What a contrast with the big commercial theaters’ draconian approach!   One of my favorite memories at the new main street location was sitting on one of the big comfortable sofas at the back of the cinema, eating take out sushi from Latitude 43 while watching a movie.   I don’t even remember what movie it was.  I just remember feeling really at home!

Robert:   There is a reason why big commercial theaters have a very strict outside food policy.  The mall theaters have 20 screens and 20 rooms to heat.  The projectors require a lot of electricity and the only way they can stay in business is by selling snacks at an enormous mark up.   Forbidding outside food is basically designed to keep them in business.   We are able to have a very different food policy because we don’t have the same prohibitive financial constraints that these other theaters have.  The nature of our programming results in much lower royalty fees.   The studios charge the big commercial theaters a lot more because the films they show cost more to produce and more to market.  A film that costs 20 million dollars to make costs 30 million dollars to promote.   The films we show, on the other hand, rely more on words of mouth and positive reviews for marketing, the same way that our Cinema does.   This means that we can charge less for our snacks and can afford to let people bring their dinner provided that it meets our three S rules.

Tesa:  Oh, and what are these?

Robert:  You must mind the sound, the smell and the slop!   Although we are right on the harbor, one of the foods we do not actually allow is seafood because, well, it smells like seafood!   And of course, no open flames!   You must also mind the fact that you have to get your food from your plate to your mouth in the dark while looking at something in the distance!

Tesa: Yes, you definitely need to mind your fork!   So, what are you cooking up now?  What’s next?

Robert: We are expanding.  We now have an annex across the street.   We had a need for classroom space for screen writing and other tv and film-related classes.  I’m working on a summer festival of short films produced on the North Shore.   We have festivals every two to three months now.   We will have the 4th annual Cape Ann Jewish Film Festival in April.  That month, we will also have the 4th annual Green Days eco-film festival which takes place annually on the Earth day week end.   We do a documentary film festival every october called the Doctober Fest.   The Cape Ann Film Festival is held every November.   Essentially, we are the film festival that never ends!   And that is actually our philosophy.   We are continually hosting film makers, either live here at the cinema or by skype.   We usually have a Q and A after the screenings.  We did one earlier this month with Tom Shadyac, the director of I Am.  This film is a bit of a phenomenon and it was our highest grossing film ever until Midnight in Paris, the new Woody Allen movie, came out.  We have also just gotten permission to use our retired brand of local origin called the Movie Loft.   It used to be a very progressive movie show hosted on a local UHF station (Channel 38), in New England.  We will soon be branding our flagship location in Gloucester with the Movie Loft logo.

Tesa:  That all sounds very exciting.   Are you facing any challenges in moving those various projects forward?

Robert: Financially, it’s still pretty tight and so I am always pursuing new partnerships with local organizations and businesses.   We are still fighting not so much indifference as much as ignorance as to who we are, where we are and what we do.   We don’t have much of a marketing budget.  The money I would spend on radio or print advertising goes into producing and printing our bimonthly program which is a four page color newsprint mini-paper.  We run 5000 copies every two months.   Other than that, we primarily rely on positive word of mouth.  We stay focused on putting on a great show, offering an unparalleled presentation each and every time, and creating an atmosphere that people want to experience.

Tesa: And how are you personally doing?  Last time we talked, you were working so hard that I was getting a little concerned about how long you would last.   You’ve clearly pulled through the hurdles of the start-up phase, but are you now able to take a bit more time off, and is the Cinema supporting you as much as you are supporting it?

Robert:  There is still a lot more giving that receiving, but it always has to be that way.   Still, I do have six employees now!   I have an office, interns, and a lot of community support.    I’ll also be officially taking on an assistant next month.

Tesa:  Does this actually mean you will be able to take it a little easier?

Robert:  Well, that’s always a nice theory!  I usually take time off in order to do more work!   I think I’m about a year away from my original goal of having the Cinema be able to live without me.   It will soon become self-sufficient enough to run for a month at a time without me.  At the moment, it can do so for about a week.

Tesa: What do you most need to take your vision to the next level, Robert?  And how can the community best support you?

Robert: Positive reviews in local papers, and online sites like facebook or yelp really help to spread the word in the community and beyond.  And financial support from patrons, sponsors or benefactors make a huge difference.  We need more funds to develop the essential infrastructure that is needed to expand this vision.  I started the Community Cinema with no money.  Everything I had went into the purchase of hardware, and most of the revenue goes toward rent and procuring high quality programming which are all considerable expenses.  Locally, we are always looking to bring partners into the mix, so anyone with a local business is always invited to sit down with me and work out a way that we can promote each other mutually.

Tesa: And what could you do with more philanthropic support?

Robert: We could establish a full time office with a support staff to help develop other community cinemas around the world.    I started writing a blueprint of the community cinema concept based on the vision document I had drafted at your suggestion three years ago, and my experience these past three years.  I’m now gearing up to start sharing that blueprint with other communities.  With more funds, we could be working with both upstarts as well as established cinemas that want to create more of a focus in their communities.   I have been thinking of launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds needed to support this part of our mission.

Tesa:  Kickstarter is a great way to mobilize community support while letting people see how their contributions add up to making something bigger possible.  I hope you move forward with that idea.   Anything else you are dreaming about?

Robert: Yes, I would like to open a multi-screen cinema pub.  I’m looking at Danvers and Ipswich.   I need to find a high ceiling space.  We are in a small space at the moment.  We are basically an 88 seats living room.  I would not abandon our flagship location, but would like to explore expanding into a variety of other spaces.   This said, part of the cinema’s appeal for a lot of patrons is that they know that every night but Sunday, they can come to the Cinema and find me there.   I’ve been a film critic since I’ve been a teenager so I know how to talk about movies with people, and that is part of the alchemy.   And I certainly get my hug quota filled by being there… many of them are completely uninitiated.  And I will never go hungry because I’m always being brought dinner.

Tesa:  And besides getting generously hugged and abundantly fed, what are a couple of things that have been especially fun and fulfilling for you these past few months?

Robert:  Our third birthday!  That was a sold-out night.  We  had comedian Jimmy Tingle there, who is running for President!   I’d actually like to do stand up comedies monthly.   I bet you don’t know that I used to do competitive stand up comedies in the 1990s!   I get nostalgic for the time that I spent being funny on a nightly basis.  I try to bring some of that to the cinema in my pre-show presentations both on the screen and on the stage.  Cape Ann has no comedy club, so my plan is to launch a comedy night once a month, starting in the Spring.  Another highlight for me this year was the opportunity to produce a film.  I got a small grant from SEARTS and produced a short documentary on some of the local public art murals that were produced during the great depression.   It debuted last May.  It’s called “No More Gloomy Sundays.”   I’m also really looking forward to teaching Film criticism this year.   I will be teaching a course on the films of Clint Eastwood, called from Macho to Mature.

Tesa:  Your energy and passion continue to amaze me!   Thank you so much for all you do, Robert.  Cape Ann is lucky to have you.   Although I no longer live here, and I am asking you these questions from the other side of the planet, here in Bali, I always enjoy reading your newsletters, and hearing about all that is happening and blossoming around the Cinema.   I wish we had one like this here in Ubud where I currently reside.  If someone here ever comes up with a similar idea, I will know where to direct them for inspiration and support!   I wish you a very happy New Year, and I look forward to checking in again a little further down the line!


Support the Community Cinema

June 8, 2013: The Cape Ann Community Cinema is currently running an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to secure a new projector.  If you wish to support Robert’s work, please go to Indiegogo to learn more, or email him directly at



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