CAMBRIDGE -- At the Brattle Theatre's all-night ''Twin Peaks" marathon on Dec. 3, a sold-out crowd settled in to find out who killed Laura Palmer. By a show of hands, most people in the audience already knew the answer. But that didn't matter. They came to support the landmark theater that faced an uncertain future and the daunting task of raising almost $400,000 within the next few weeks.
In the wee hours, Ned Hinkle, the Brattle's creative director, served audience members coffee and cherry pie (a treat favored by a character on ''Twin Peaks"). Before things got started, he gave the audience a choice: whether to watch David Lynch's quirky TV series or ''Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," the scattershot movie that came out after the show but is actually its prequel. Technically, the movie should be shown first. The crowd disagreed.
''I don't want any revolution here, even if this is Cambridge," Hinkle said playfully.
He then jokingly told audience members to vote with their dollars -- if they paid more, they would get their way. One woman took him up on his offer and slapped some money down on the stage. Like a father trying to quiet fighting children in the back seat of the family station wagon, Hinkle gave another tongue-in-cheek warning.
''Don't make me pull this theater over, people!" he said.
Although the mood was light, the Brattle is in serious trouble. In October, the single-screen theater announced it had to raise $400,000 by year's end and another $100,000 by the close of 2006 to maintain repertory programming and remain open.
Even though its fund-raising goal hasn't been met, the theater won't go dark this weekend. With almost $200,000 raised to date, the Brattle has set a new goal: securing another $200,000 by the time its lease expires on Feb. 28. What Brattle supporters wonder now is, what happens if the theater can't come up with the money by that date?
''That's the million-dollar question," says executive director Ivy Moylan. ''I think everybody understands [the theater] is a really precious jewel of the community that needs to be preserved."
Moylan says the Brattle is considering all possibilities, even, if things don't work out, reinventing itself as a programming entity and showing films at venues around the city. But the hope, of course, is to keep the theater at the Harvard Square location it's occupied since 1953. Moylan says more fund-raisers are in the works, including concerts and benefit screenings. On Dec. 10, the theater had a packed house for a showing of Federico Muchnik's film ''Touching History: Harvard Square, the Bank and the Tasty Diner" that was followed by a panel discussion.
Hinkle says things are still tenuous and the Brattle doesn't want to look like ''the theater that cried wolf." Despite early fund-raising success, the next challenge is maintaining momentum.
''The whole point of this is we don't want to be in the position in a year or two years where we have to raise a significant chunk of money," he says.
Hinkle and Moylan are upbeat about their progress so far. They don't yet have any major donors, but their grassroots approach has paid off. Pledges ranging from $25 to $500 have come in from places as far away as New Zealand. Various groups have held parties, concerts, and other fund-raisers for the theater. In November, the theater announced a Watch-a-Thon program to raise money. Moviegoers collected pledges for every film they saw during a three-week period and raised more than $10,000 in the process.
The night after the ''Twin Peaks" marathon, the Brattle hosted a party at Hong Kong Restaurant to thank supporters who participated in the Watch-a-Thon. Edward Bordas, who earned $2,300 for the theater, recently moved back to Boston after a decade in New York. He says given the smaller number of art houses here, being able to go to a theater like the Brattle ''eased the transition."
''I knew it would be a big loss so I just wanted to make sure that it stayed," he says.
Jason Seaver, another top Watch-a-Thon earner, watched 39 movies in three weeks to help the Brattle raise money. He says he chose the location of his Harvard Square apartment specifically so he'd be within walking distance of the Brattle. He's pleased that the theater has come such a long way toward raising $400,000, but it's too soon to relax just yet.
''I'm going to be worried until I have the March-April calendar in my hands," he says.
Community support has played a huge role in the Brattle's campaign, but the theater is still looking for other funding sources or partnerships that might help.
David Kleiler, founder of the Boston Underground Film Festival, has been advising Moylan and Hinkle informally and put the duo in touch with Christy and Jay Cashman. A fund-raiser (for BUFF and the Brattle) at the Cashmans' Back Bay home on Dec. 17 drew a well-heeled crowd and brought in more than $2,500. Kleiler, former head of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, would like to see the Brattle succeed.
''It's not just a question of what people like me and others do to help them," Kleiler says, ''but what can they do to help themselves."
Connie White, programmer at the Coolidge, says the Brattle's situation has grown more complex than it was when she and Marianne Lampke ran the Cambridge theater from 1987 to 2001. Harvard Square's landscape continues to change -- the Tasty Diner, record store HMV, and WordsWorth Books were all still open at that time. White says that in addition to reaching out to local businesses and Harvard University, the theater should consider tapping into the neighborhood through its network of supporters, Friends of the Brattle.
''That should include not just moviegoers but the community: the landlord, wealthy residents on Brattle Street, and Harvard alums who learned about film by going to the Brattle," she says.
Rhonda Stewart can be reached at email@example.com.