Four Years On: Four Things I’ve Learned

By OGT Executive Director Caitlin McGrath

Even four years later, the memory is crystal clear: A cold night in January, 2015. Sitting in Greenbelt City Council Chambers, the room was packed as we quietly waited for the vote.

For nearly two years I had been working a plan to transform the theater into a vibrant community resource. All that work came down to this night, in front of Council as they announced their decision and officially cast their votes. Sitting in the front row, I was trying to keep my face calm while I held my breath as each one spoke. One by one, they praised everyone’s bids, and spoke about their hopes and enthusiasm for the non-profit model to bring this Greenbelt treasure fully to life. After four votes went in our favor, I knew we’d won, but it was when all seven votes were a “yes” for the Friends of Greenbelt Theatre that I finally took a deep breath.

The wave of relief for all the past work and excitement for the future was almost overwhelming. I was on cloud nine, and stayed there for the first giddy few months while we prepped and then opened our doors on May 1, 2015.

Standing at the back of the theater as the screen lit up with that very first film (Linklater’s Boyhood) that very first day, I cried happy tears. It was happening. We were really doing it. It’s hard to believe four years have passed, and yet it feels like surely it must have been longer – so natural the role feels both for myself and the theater’s place in the community.

As we hit the four year mark this week and the organization is about to embark on another exciting new phase, it seemed a fitting time to reflect.

1. The movie business: more than meets the eye

Our premise was that the theater could do and be more than it was before 2014, and it’s gratifying that we were right.

The yearly average for the Old Greenbelt Theatre under the former for-profit operation was 26 films a year. Films stayed about two weeks, usually just at night. Under the non-profit community-based model, we run an average of 58 first-run, arthouse movies (our regular daily showings) and an *additional* 170 films and events on top of that, at all times of day – nights, of course, but weekday mornings, matinees, all weekend. That’s a staggering difference no matter how you look at it. That’s nearly *ten times* the number of things to see and do at the theater.

The non-profit model is a powerful tool of transformation: and it’s simply because we believe strongly in what we do, and we’re committed not to profits but to service. Every cent that comes in gets churned right back out into amazing programming: special events, Snow Days, School’s Out, guest speakers, Storytime on Screen, and much more.

I don’t take my role of Executive Director lightly. This theater is a gem and we’re lucky to have it. I push myself every day to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make movies accessible for everyone. Anyone who has been to a film that made them think, or cry, or laugh with their neighbors, or debate with their friends knows that film is a powerful tool for bringing people together. I began my career as an educator, and I still secretly wear that hat. The moving image crosses cultural barriers, and linguistic ones too – yes it can be an escape, but I find more often than not it’s also a way to educate and communicate.

2. The Hot Air Balloon and the Freight Train

One of the challenges that we face as a non-profit movie theater is exactly that: we are a non-profit *and* we are a movie theater. These are two very different animals. Or, in my head I imagine them as the “hot air balloon” and the “freight train”.

The non-profit is the hot air balloon: floating overhead, moving slowly and deliberately. Not so easy to steer, but also able to see the big picture, to think long term.

The movie theater is the freight train barrelling down the tracks: It’s open 365 days a year,morning ‘til night, and stops for no one! That’s another fact I have to really let sink in. Not once in the past four years have we closed our doors. Not for a holiday, or bad weather, or because we want a break. It is open, we are here.

And I, as the Executive Director, am in between the two, scrambling up the ladder to the hot air balloon to make sure we’re on the right course, adjusting our elevation, giving it a little more air. Then it’s time to shimmy back down to keep the freight train under control. Every day brings new opportunities, new challenges. When things get particularly busy, I feel bodily sympathy for poor Gromit, just barely keeping ahead on the track.

3. It takes a team

And while I appreciate the confidence that is contained within comments such as, “It’s great how you run everything!”, “You probably never leave the theater!”, I’m the same as everyone else with the need for sleep and food and time with my husband and kids. While it’s true that in the beginning I was at the theater for about 16 hours a day, that wore off after the first year. It was, (big surprise here!) literally exhausting.

I knew that to be able to keep the theater going, I’d need a strong team. And I’m happy to say we’ve got the best team yet. Amy in charge of the office, Kelly at the helm of marketing and fundraising, Leslie keeping the books, and Brenna making sure the front of house runs smoothly.

Our front of house staff round out the team – and you’ll know their faces best as the ones who happily greet you on your way in and wish you well as you go. You see me on stage perhaps more than anyone, welcoming you to the Old Greenbelt Theatre, but if I am able to keep the train on the tracks and the balloon in the air, it is only because this stellar team is with me all the way.

4. The community is what makes a community-based theater so great!

Greenbelt is a wonderfully unique place, and one I have been glad to call home since 2011.

It changes and grows as do all communities, and I’ve felt honored to play a small part. Greenbelt has always been resilient, and I’m proud to share in that evolving strength and make the theater part of our expansion of the sense of community.

I had my own hope that this community would want to support and be a part of my vision for the Old Greenbelt Theatre, and I’m constantly surprised and humbled by everyone’s generosity and willingness to support and engage with all we do. As we enter a new phase with our Pop-up cinema and future plans for arts integration-based media literacy and film education, I look forward to working with all of Greenbelt to continue the work we started four years ago.

By OGT Member Gary Kohn


See you at the movies…Caitlin.


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