Close-up and personal

Cinema offers a congenial movie experience

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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Before showtimes at the Cape Ann Community Cinema, proprietor Robert Newton cues up a digital slide show of his late grandfather’s collection of vintage Gloucester postcards.

“He was obsessed,’’ Newton says. The 40-year-old film fanatic, who opened his idiosyncratic theater last July, might say the same about himself.

As the one-man show behind an enterprise he calls the Mass Bay Film Project, he is the curator, floor manager, and, on most nights, the ticket taker at the North Shore’s newest, least conventional movie house. He even makes the popcorn.

The Gloucester cinema, his labor of love, is on the second floor of the Main Street building of St. Peter’s Club, above Mystery Train Records. Stuffed with second-hand armchairs and sofas, it was conceived as a home away from home for movie lovers, with an HD digital projection system, a bookshelf of film criticism, and a DVD lending library.

Newton, a part-time reviewer and former video-store owner, takes pride in presenting an eclectic mix in this oversized living room, including classics, documentaries, foreign films, operas from Europe, and a twice-monthly musical performance series called Odd Tuesdays. The lights don’t go down until he tiptoes around the room, switching them off.

On the first Sunday in March, the cinema will host an Oscar party, where the crowd (the room seats 85) no doubt will be rooting for the underdogs. The cinema will celebrate Academy Awards week not with George Clooney or Sandra Bullock features but with multiple screenings of the animated and live-action short-film nominees.

Some of the theater’s most notable successes to date have included last year’s Academy Award-winning foreign-language film “Departures,’’ the activist documentary “Food, Inc.’’ and Jane Campion’s historical romance “Bright Star,’’ which Newton recently reprised for Valentine’s Day. It is safe to say this isn’t the kind of theater that will be screening “Avatar’’ any time soon.

Yet it was a fantastical blockbuster of another generation that got Newton hooked on movies in the first place. His boyhood infatuation with “Star Wars’’ led to a high school job at an old video store in Hamilton (he eventually bought the store), which in turn led to a brief attempt at screenwriting in Los Angeles. He ran video stores in Worcester and Auburn before selling out to a competitor in 2003.

“Movies are the perfect convergence of so many art forms,’’ says Newton, a self-professed “child of the Bookmobile’’ who once recorded an album of novelty songs that got airplay on Dr. Demento’s nationally syndicated radio show. “It’s all there - photography, design, music, writing, performance.’’

Gloucester resident William Taylor, a 68-year-old “semi-retired’’ antiques dealer who has become a cinema regular, says Newton is resurrecting the heyday of the arthouse, when film studies were an intellectual pursuit.

“I grew up watching the great foreign films at the Brattle in Cambridge in the ’60s,’’ says Taylor. “There’s a tremendous cadre of artists on Cape Ann, people interested in this kind of cultural activity. And there’s a dearth of it in this world now.’’

On a recent Monday evening, Newton screened a free program of rare old cartoons banned for racial insensitivity, war propaganda, and other outdated political incorrectness. Hopping in front of his small audience, he explained that he shows the cartoons, culled from his own personal collection, in the interest of preservation. The studios “for the most part would like these to disappear,’’ he said.

“And now, a word from our sponsors,’’ he continued, cueing a black-and-white cigarette commercial featuring the Flintstones.

Why free? asked one customer who padded up to the candy counter in stockinged feet, having left his boots at the door.

“We’re confused enough as it is,’’ Newton joked. Stepping out to the stairwell landing, which doubles as the theater’s lobby, he plopped down in a chair and picked up a stray balloon, left over from a weekend birthday party. The birthday boy and his friends ate pizza and watched “The Goonies.’’

Newton gets about two-thirds of his programming from a service called Emerging Pictures Network, which makes an extensive list of digitized features available to subscribers operating independent cinemas like his. Besides the fact that its titles dig deeper than the first-run features at the multiplex, he likes the service for the convenience and environmental consciousness of its computer-upload distribution model.

Traditional 35-millimeter prints, he said, take time to assemble and cost to ship. “This is a very green alternative. Even if we get a film through someone other than Emerging, we insist we get a digital print. That way there’s no plastic.’’

Even the chocolate bars are Fair Trade, and the popcorn is organic. Going green is an important part of Newton’s blueprint, which he plans to make available to other independent theaters soon. “I want this to be about responsible living,’’ he said.

Mostly, though, the cinema is his salon, a place to engage others in his passion for the movies. From his “office’’ on the floral-print couch facing the back corner, he will rent the room for private parties. He’ll even take the show on the road, with a 20-foot inflatable screen that can be set up outdoors.

“We want people to get together over a movie,’’ he said. “Community is literally our middle name.’’