The Olympia Film Society
January 2017

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I recently attended a board meeting of the Olympia Film Society.  Their Board meetings are open to public just as their website promises.  These folks have nothing to hide but much to discuss and ponder.  A small group of dedicated volunteer board members hunkered down in a circle of mismatched chairs on a chilly evening in downtown Olympia to review their budget and make plans for an uncertain future.  Some heated exchanges were the only source of warmth in the otherwise frigid room which seemed an apt setting for the intimate gathering ready to face some cold realities.  

As their website states, the Olympia Film Society has been the Capitol Theater’s “sole tenant and caretaker” since the society’s inception in 1986.  This handful of local enthusiasts are the stewards of a theater that opened in 1924.  The current State Capitol hadn’t even been built on the hill above the Deschutes waterway at that point in Olympia’s history.  Not only is the single screen theater one of the original “movie palaces” from the golden era of silent films but its stage featured vaudeville acts as well.  Judy Garland sang there apparently and we’re likely talking about the pre-Dorothy “Ethel Gumm” years no doubt.  The theater is indeed the “grand dame” of the downtown’s historic core.  But the old gal is showing her age and in need of much attention.  To add insult to injury, it was reported during the board meeting that a delivery truck in the alley recently trashed the theater’s ancient fire escape.  The board dutifully added this to the long list of infrastructure repair items: the ultimate “honey do” list from hell.  As the thankless task of a yearend budget review wore on through the evening it became clear that the liabilities column was starting to be out of balance with the Film Society’s assets.  The finance guy finally spoke up and gave it to them straight: one stroke of “bad luck” and the doors could be shuttered on this venerable location.  And what then?  The downtown night life scene gets a little quieter, just when the trend towards new market rate housing seems to be finally animating the situation.

 

The Capital Theater’s 100th anniversary is in seven years and these intrepid souls bravely seek to ask the tough questions: what will the theater look like in 2024?  How will it keep its doors open until then and how will it be viewed by the local community? In sum, will we be proud of where we took her?

 

Not to be overwhelmed with their circumstances, the small group has a retreat planned in the new year and is contemplating some significant changes to their business model.  There is talk of raising membership rates and deemphasizing regular film showings, focusing instead on producing more one-time themed events, film based and otherwise, as these seem to appeal more with the public.  Some worried looks amongst the more longstanding board members garnered a response by the Executive Director: “We just need to talk through some options” she said to take the edge off what was being contemplated out loud.  But what does all this portend in terms of the core mission of what remains a film society, at least for the time being?

 

In some ways, the trials of this small organization are a microcosm of Olympia’s; there is much change in the air and pressures are looming.  Lots of questions need answering to carry our town into a sustainable future.  While it is not necessarily an existential exploration, these are formidable challenges with a host of possibilities and a range of options in the path toward realizing yet unrealized potential. Where will all this take Olympia and what will she look like in the end depending on what doors we chose to open and pass through?  Will we like what our city becomes?   The same line of inquiry that besets our state capitol also challenges the theater that is its namesake.  A situation at a crossroads with an unclear fate but much in the balance.  The Olympia Film Society on this particular cold night has only a few citizens willing to brave the hard questions.  Will there be more willing to come forward, committed to a serious and candid discussion of Olympia’s fate?

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