( Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe/2009)
The Coolidge Corner Theater, tucked behind a sterile “Upper Crust” pizza joint in downtown Brookline, is an Art-deco relic, a flashback to an earlier, grander time when the movies were a 25-cent getaway from the hardships of reality. Born as a movie theater in 1933, the Coolidge is a child of the Great Depression. Now, just as in its earliest days, the non-profit theater is enduring another economic downturn. And just like 70 years ago, the theater is offering an escape for those hit hardest by the recession.
The “Recession Special” is a weekly program at the Coolidge that offers free movie tickets for the jobless every Thursday afternoon. In place since early this year, the deal brings in a small group of out-of-work Bay Staters, according to theater manager Nancy Campbell.
“We get a handful of people, depending on the week,” Campbell said during a recent “Recession Special” shift. Yet on this uncharacteristically warm fall day only one middle-aged woman took advantage of the deal. She flashed a paper from the Department of Labor proving she is unemployed, then plucked her ticket and rushed in to see “Mademoiselle Chambon,” a French romance film. A week later, another out-of-work woman was the only customer of the day to use the special.
“I think it’s a great thing they’re doing for the community,” said the Brookline woman, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns for privacy.
Despite the appreciation, the low turnout was a disappointing result for a movie house whose mission statement includes a desire to “[present] films and film series to underserved communities.”
“We thought this is an important thing to do for people who may be demoralized or isolated,” said associate director Elizabeth Taylor-Mead. “We have to do what we can.”
Taylor-Mead is an ideal match for the quaint theater. Her curly silver hair framed a constant smile on her face like cinema curtains highlight the movie screen. She spoke softly, always respectful of the films being screened just down the hall.
“People are looking to identify with stories they can relate to,” Taylor-Mead said. “They want some heightened sense of escapism.” The theater, she added, can and should provide that kind of retreat.
It’s a fact especially true for the Coolidge. In the late 1980s, the theater was sold and threatened with demolition. As an ultimate indignity for the art-house, a mall was proposed in its place.
But in 1989, the community rallied around the Coolidge, and spared it from destruction. The theater was revived as a non-profit organization, and since then, has tried to repay its debt to Brookline, one movie ticket at a time.
Altogether, the theater doesn’t lose much revenue by offering the special. A standard ticket at the Coolidge costs about $10, though there are various student and senior discounts. Even at its height, the theater might lose $50 or $60 worth of sales by giving away free tickets.
Taylor-Mead said when the special was first proposed, the theater had no idea how many people would come, and how much money they would lose.
“This was a gamble,” she said. But she added profit-margins are not the point.
“We did it just to help out,” she said. “We’re always thinking of what community programs we can do.” The Recession Special was one such effort.
Specials and coupons during poor economies are not unique to the Coolidge. Associate chair of the Boston University Economics Department, Albert Ma, said that coupons can convince consumers to purchase goods they might not ordinarily buy, using what economists call “price discrimination.”
“I will charge lower prices for those with low demand,” Ma said. “And I will charge higher prices for those with more demand.”
Yet even during the worst of times, Ma estimated only 30 to 40 percent of coupons offered by businesses are redeemed.
For non-profits like the Coolidge, specials and coupons serve a different purpose. “I don’t think the profit incentive applies there,” Ma said, referring to the theater’s free tickets. “Remember, making money is not the only goal of an economic agent.” Ma said that for the Coolidge one goal could be serving the community.
But why did so few take advantage of the free ticket deal that Thursday afternoon? Ma only shrugged. Taylor-Mead had her own take on the low turnouts.
“Maybe they’re editing their resume or going on job interviews,” she said hopefully.
Box office attendant Tierra Leonard had another idea, on the bright afternoon. “Today’s such a nice day out, so I can see how people might be attracted to being outside,” she said with a laugh.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.