Bryn Mawr Film Institute Adds Innovation to the Moviegoing Experience

Bryn Mawr Film Institute survives COVID to become one of the most progressive movie houses in the region.

On a warm August evening in 2021, a small line of moviegoers filed into the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, pausing at a table near the entrance to show proof of COVID vaccination to a masked attendant before entering. BMFI’s “VacCinema” program would continue on Mondays and Tuesdays for about 15 months. It was the first movie theater in the Philadelphia area to provide a fully vaccinated, in-person experience for patrons, also developing an online system for safe-distance seating.

These were quiet firsts for BMFI—but hardly the only ones. When the well-received big-screen comedy American Fiction started playing in theaters across the country this past winter, executive director and CEO Samuel Scott told a Saturday-night audience that attendance there was among the best in theaters around the country—arthouse or chain.

But Scott and others at BMFI see more value in things that aren’t offered elsewhere. And their efforts have only accelerated since the dark days of the pandemic, which posed a serious threat to theaters around the country. When BMFI was closed for over a year from 2020 to 2021, it was crucial that “shuttered” didn’t mean “forgotten.”

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“We wanted to make sure we were still in the hearts and minds of our constituents,” says Scott, who’s been a movie buff since he was a small child growing up in Jenkintown.

During that period, Andrew Douglas, BMFI’s deputy director, spearheaded an array of online seminars and film discussions. Once the theater reopened, BMFI was primed to resume its regular offerings, including film studies courses, screenings of major overseas stage productions, and programs for people who can’t get to the theater or remain uncomfortable attending in person (despite the theater’s recently installed state-of-the-art air purifying systems).

On Open Screen Monday, local filmmakers can premiere their work. There’s a summer filmmaking workshop for a dozen high school students, and family-friendly Saturday morning matinees are also popular. For a February Date Night series, “we wanted to present a set of romance-themed films that tackled the subject from different angles,” says Jacob Mazer, director of programs and education.

Scott frequently speaks to audiences before screenings, getting the word out about future events and offering membership forms. Currently, BMFI has some 6,000 members and hopes to return to its pre-COVID high of 9,000. “People are busy—they’re finding it hard to commit,” Scott says. “We’ve carved a niche and built a following. We’re also a business—and it’s a competitive one.”

Scott once ran the film program at the University of Rochester, later working for Warner Bros. and the General Cinema Corporation before retiring from the corporate world. He took over as BMFI’s executive director in 2017, succeeding its founder, Juliet Goodfriend, who started a decade-long expansion project that saw the ’20s-era theater added to the National Register of Historic Places. He notes that BMFI is fortunate to be surrounded by a highly educated population. College students, in particular, help the bottom line at the concession stand. “They eat more,” he says.

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Visit Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s website.

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