Pure Cinema

Pure Cinema

On the cusp of its centennial, The Belcourt Theatre strives to retain its status as the center of Nashville’s film culture

As the last summer blockbusters lingered in Nashville multiplexes during the fall of 2015, The Belcourt began its run of Oscar-season indies that perennially serves as the financial backbone of arthouse movie theatres around the nation. But that autumn was a bit different. The Belcourt needed money. Not because it was in a dire financial situation similar to the one it faced in 1999 when former Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley published his now-mythic jeremiad against the city’s apathetic moviegoing public that, in local lore, singlehandedly averted the theatre’s annihilation. Rather because The Belcourt had become such a pillar of Nashville’s arts landscape that renovating its crumbling 90-year-old facility had finally become fiscally viable. To achieve its $5 million goal, the theatre launched the “Why The Belcourt?” capital campaign with a promotional video featuring a cavalcade of Nashville celebrities. Recently elected mayor Megan Barry highlighted the urgency of preserving the community’s cultural center as Nashville reached peak “It City” status while WSMV news anchor Demetria Kalodimos remarked, “The best conversations I have, inevitably, are on the steps walking out of The Belcourt on a dark night after seeing some wonderful piece of art.” The importance of such conversations clearly extended far beyond Kalodimos’s social circle as The Belcourt gleaned enough donations from regular patrons and Nashville’s upper-crust to commence construction the following January. When it reemerged in July 2016 after a six-month closure, The Belcourt cemented its status as a Nashville institution, repeatedly breaking its own admissions records. Then, COVID-19 ushered in a reckoning: what happens to a movie theatre built on the conversations Kalodimos reveres when communal experience becomes a perceived threat that is both biological and existential?

The “Why The Belcourt?” campaign was supposed to preserve a piece of Nashville’s history and act, in the words of Barry as, “an example of how growth can be done responsibly.” Yet, when the theatre assumed its position as a renewed landmark ready to serve as a symbol of It City’s enviable cultural prowess, it found itself outlasting the community pillars largely responsible for Nashville’s reputation in the first place. Three months before The Belcourt’s reopening, Jim Ridley died after collapsing in the Scene’s office, prematurely ending his run as both the city’s most vocal champion of The Belcourt and a journalist whose work brought national prominence to Nashville’s arts community (the theatre named its renovated lobby in his honor).

A year later, WSMV abruptly ended Kalodimos’s three-decade tenure at the station, a decision that led to public outcry and a lawsuit that the anchor and the NBC affiliate’s parent company eventually settled. Mayor Barry’s political ascension began the same September as The Belcourt’s fundraising efforts, built upon her leaning into her persona as a local Hillary ready to shepherd Nashville into its next chapter as a great American city. It ended in scandal less than three years later. As the theatre’s most vocal supporters fell, so did the Hillsboro Village mainstays for which the new-and-improved Belcourt intended to serve as an anchor. Neighboring Bookman/Bookwoman closed in 2016 followed by Jackson’s Bar & Bistro in 2018 and Pangea in early 2019. Davis Cookware ended its 50-year run in June 2019 as the neighborhood became awash in corporate franchises and faceless boutiques that drove up rents and further strained local businesses. The Belcourt was finally ready to embrace its role as the beacon of Nashville, but the particulars of what Nashville wanted to be were in flux.

This recent enshrinement of The Belcourt as a cornerstone of New Nashville is a near reversal of the theatre’s tumultuous history. Built in 1925 by Hungarian immigrant Joseph “Papa Joe” Lightman as The Hillsboro Theatre, it initially screened silent films before pivoting to theatrical productions and music in its first six years of operation. After serving as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1934-1936, the theatre changed its name to the Nashville Community Playhouse to distinguish itself from more opulent movie palaces such as The Belle Meade and The Inglewood that dominated film exhibition in the city. The theatre returned to screening movies in 1966 when the now Belcourt became the first “twin cinema” two-screener in Nashville under a partnership between Carmike Cinemas and the Massey family. Revenue waxed and waned as it became the city’s only neighborhood moviehouse when The Belle Meade shuttered in 1991. With grosses falling amid the rise of the multiplex, management shifted The Belcourt’s programming to tap into the 90s indie film boom, featuring movies by videostore-brat directors of the Spike Lee/Quentin Tarantino/Jim Jarmusch variety as well as popular international arthouse films like The Crying Game and The Piano.

The theatre puttered along until 1997 when Carmike ended its lease, leading developer Charles Hawkins and a team of investors to purchase it from the Massey family and rename it The Watkins-Belcourt while turning its management over to the now-defunct (or, more accurately,  absorbed into Belmont) Watkins Institute College of Art & Design. Though the theatre solidified its current mix of contemporary indies, repertory screenings, and curated film series that has come to define The Belcourt during these years, middling attendance led to its closure in January 1999. In his acidic call to arms to save the theatre, Ridley excoriated the “city’s stupefying complacency” that led to its demise, shying away from neither anecdotes concerning patrons expressing their apologies for its closure while attempting to smuggle in microwave popcorn nor potshots at the Regal multiplexes showcasing Patch Adams on multiple screens. Ever the consummate journalist, Ridley peppered his harangue with suggestions for The Belcourt’s salvation that eventually became prophetic: reincorporating as a nonprofit, cultivating community outreach, and selling memberships. In response, the nonprofit Belcourt YES! reopened the theatre the next year before purchasing its property in 2007, thus ushering in The Belcourt as Nashville knows it today.

What such narratives of Belcourt history often gloss over is the theatre’s evolution from Ridley pity buying extra tickets for Fellini retrospectives in 1998 to the same classic cinema programming often selling out screenings two decades later. Some credit goes to Ridley and his relentless Scene coverage of every Belcourt offering until the week of his death. But the bulk of the theatre’s turnaround occurred under the leadership of executive director Stephanie Silverman, who has undertaken a strategy more sophisticated than simply providing cinephiles obscure and offbeat films that directly engages Nashville’s communities by pushing the boundaries of non-profit cinema beyond the theatre’s walls. Through a series of initiatives spearheaded by Silverman and The Belcourt’s education director Allison Inman (who also happens to be one of Nashville’s most singular filmmakers), it has developed a mobile movie theatre to foster media literacy in schools as well as communities whose members are unable to travel. Likewise, The Belcourt has established programs that cater to specific populations within the community, including high-school and college film clubs, the Strong Leads film seminar for adolescent girls, the “Science on Screen” film series popular with families and local science educators, the “12 Hours of Terror” Halloween movie marathon for horror aficionados, and guest lectures by local university professors and community leaders whose work dovetails with particular films (not to mention an occasional appearance by an Ethan Hawke or Nicole Kidman at a special event). A moment in the national spotlight came in 2014 when the theatre became one of the first to screen Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview when Sony as well as major theatre chains caved and cancelled its wide release in the wake of a cyberattack North Korea carried out against the studio in retaliation for the movie’s lampooning of Kim Jong-un. As The Belcourt extends the reach of its offerings into more Nashville communities, it has become a brand with an authoritative cultural stamp that makes movies more relevant—even if the same films are playing at the local Regal. When asked about why such popular indie titles perform better at The Belcourt than in their briefer runs at multiplexes, Silverman responded, “We do a better job of attracting audiences.”

The ranks of Nashville’s cinephiles have grown since The Belcourt’s renovation. Consequently, the chances of snagging a seat (much less a parking space) for a quiet midweek matinee with just a handful of other Terrence Malick or Claire Denis devotees largely died with the theatre’s dilapidated bathrooms and terminal HVAC system. Hillsboro Village’s complete transition from a historic neighborhood to a tourist stop has also altered the makeup of The Belcourt’s audience enough that moviegoing-etiquette infractions and texting incidents, which were once akin to desecrating a church sanctuary, are routine regardless of the staff’s unflagging attention to such violations. One can’t help the feeling that many in the surrounding seats are there to impress a date or complete a hipster Nashvillian rite of passage rather than steep themselves in cinematic experience. Any patron scrolling on their smartphone while waiting for the audience to file into the theatre’s Jackson Education and Engagement Space for a film’s postscreening discussion finds a curious disparity between the hordes of Gen-Zers and millennials proudly waving their tickets in their Instagram stories and the handful of attendees who want to take full advantage of Inman’s event planning. Like a Polaroid or MTV logo on a graphic tee sold at the local Kohl’s, The Belcourt, through no fault of its own, has also become a symbol of token cultural capital unglued from the context of its daily operations.

Such stature in the community also positions The Belcourt as beyond reproach. Despite rumblings of minor disagreements when the theatre’s board shared renovation plans with stakeholders, the proposal met no substantial public resistance in a city where a property with any prominence changing hands or changing at all ignites the ire of someone with a bullhorn. Its years of lacking handicapped-accessible bathrooms never merited any substantial backlash from disability-rights advocates (the building’s status as a historical site exempted it from ADA compliance and the staff always took great care to accommodate guests with disabilities as best it could). When Megan Barry’s political enemies seized upon her son’s death by drug overdose weeks after his college graduation, the then mayor held his memorial at The Belcourt, a reminder of her family’s ties to the community from a space known for its neutrality. In its coverage of the theatre, The Tennessean has resorted to recycling the same positive platitudes in article after article as it venerates the crown jewel of Nashville’s cultural institutions. In a time of polarization that even extends into the “blue oasis” of Nashville, near-universal adoration of The Belcourt is one of the few genuine gestures that shows the city’s potential to rise above its many issues.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of serving as the shorthand for a city’s arts scene occurs when branding extends beyond an institution’s actual reach. Since it cracked a record of 160,000 admissions in 2014, the theatre’s attendance has hovered around this number through 2019 when it sold 141,303 tickets. In the pandemic era, The Belcourt has sold 43,516 tickets since April 2021 while operating at 50% capacity, a more than 67% decline in traffic, but a respectable rebound after a combined year of closure. In comparison, the smallest multiplexes in Middle Tennessee’s suburban and rural enclaves have averaged around 300,000 attendees so far this year while navigating a lack of new releases. Before the pandemic, such theatres reached 350-400,000 tickets sold annually. Top-tier properties like Regal’s Opry Mills and AMC’s Thoroughbred 20 could boast 700-800,000 yearly attendees before 2020 and should end 2021 with over half a million admissions. At its peak, The Belcourt’s yearly attendance was on par with one and a half UT football games at Neyland Stadium or less than eight events at Bridgestone Arena. Still, in a region of over two million residents, The Belcourt’s influence remains impressive, especially given its more obscure and challenging programming.

Yet, The Belcourt’s cultural cachet has not absolved the theatre of the challenges inherent to operating a venue in the aftermath of COVID. Unlike its corporate counterparts, The Belcourt remained dedicated to paying its staff through the duration of its first closure in March 2020 as well as its second shuttering from January to April 2021. While, according to Silverman, the success of events like The Belcourt’s drive-in Sundance Film Festival in February and other outdoor screenings last fall showed how the community “felt the loss” of business as usual, the theatre’s altruistic dedication to its employees and community faced numerous obstacles. From the early days of lockdown, patrons had the opportunity to purchase and stream titles that were originally scheduled to play the theatre via The Belcourt’s virtual cinema. Not many did. After receiving $560,494.50 in federal relief money earmarked for venues with a second round of money coming later this year, the theatre graciously accepted a substantial financial gift from Amazon under a program that the ubiquitous retailer initiated to share its record pandemic profits with community organizations in the cities where it has headquarters—a decision that may make a certain type of Belcourt fan prone to decrying Hillsboro Village’s corporate trajectory bristle.

For Silverman, the federal relief and Amazon’s gift have been “a lifeline” for the theatre and its promise to pay employees come what may. The financial infusion has also gone toward covering losses that The Belcourt has amassed by operating at reduced capacity since its first reopening in October 2020—a limit Regal, AMC, and Cinemark abandoned last May. Though the theatre and its chain competitors lifted masking requirements in the spring, The Belcourt reinstated them this summer due to the emergence of the delta variant. Despite the return of such safety protocols, the theatre has no plans to require proof-of-vaccination or COVID tests barring special events such as last month’s “12 Hours of Terror” marathon. “We’re having a really good year,” Silverman said.

The Belcourt hopes that the capacity limits and mask requirements will make patrons feel safe, but, as the only movie theatre in town with such policies, it must contend with the reality of competitors siphoning off its audience. Many potential patrons that mask policies appeal to remain too fearful of public spaces to go out or, when they do, broadcast their “first time going to a movie in two years” proclamations on social media, seemingly unaware that many theatres have been open for fifteen months or that they have become the COVID equivalent of Ridley’s microwave-popcorn transgressors. Worse, by adopting a mask policy stronger than the vague recommendations most chain theatres post in their lobbies (and more stringent than many of the city’s music venues), The Belcourt risks compromising its status as a neutral Nashville institution.

Three years ago during the theatre’s landmark “Essential Westerns” series, The Belcourt was a place where urbane progressives could take their MAGA grandfathers to see a John Wayne movie like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and bond over the film’s multifaceted take on American myths. Now, grandpa has to stay at home or use his senior discount at the local AMC. When not a single case of COVID has been traced back to movie attendance anywhere in the world—mask policy or no mask policy—the theatre’s protocols seemingly exist to appeal to the politics of its base rather than a more populist swath of the region’s moviegoing public who aren’t yet Belcourt members but, nevertheless, appreciate how it enriches Middle Tennessee. Since capacity restrictions make attendance numbers more difficult to analyze, one hopes the theatre’s safety measures aren’t permanently alienating audience members who would otherwise be willing to return.

Compounding The Belcourt’s COVID response, many chain theatres began showing more independent films when faced with a dearth of programming last year, a trend that has not abated with the release of tentpoles like Venom: Let There be Carnage, Dune, Halloween Kills, and the Bond movie No Time to Die. Though Silverman hopes The Belcourt will be able to offer more exclusive engagements in the next few months, nearly all of the theatre’s scheduled films since its first reopening have shared releases with multiplexes or premiered day and date on streaming services. As Silverman noted, The Belcourt retains such films longer and routinely used to set records as the highest-grossing location in the U.S. for particular indie titles. Yet, the theatre operating under such restrictive COVID measures makes competing options more appealing for patrons foundered on streaming who see moviegoing as a reprieve from pandemic life. The first week of October as The Belcourt began its run of the French film Titane, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, AMC Thoroughbred devoted a screen to the movie. During Sunday matinee hours on a day with inclement weather, one would expect the region’s arthouse audience lined up outside The Belcourt or attending the third day of the Nashville Film Festival for which the theatre served as a site. But in suburban Franklin, a subtitled movie about a serial killer who has sex with a car attracted enough interest to fill a quarter of a larger auditorim—a market share The Belcourt would have almost entirely cornered before March 2020. One could say the same for a host of arthouse titles screening at top-tier AMCs and Regals from The Eyes of Tammy Faye and the Icelandic horror movie Lamb to last summer’s Belcourt hit Zola.

Twenty two years ago, Ridley blamed the impending downfall of The Belcourt on audiences who “don’t receive better because they haven’t been demanding or supporting it” and settle with whatever is playing at the local multiplex. As the theatre moves beyond COVID, The Belcourt’s greatest threat stems not from an unrefined audience dismissing its programming but from its own demands on said audience. The Belcourt’s success hinges on its status as a second home for Nashville’s cinephiles as well as a general population it has taught to appreciate cinema. But amid its well-intentioned push to keep its patrons safe, it runs the risk of pushing them away. Belcourt audiences have always been faced with the choice of paying a service fee to reserve tickets in advance or making the trek to the theatre to find a movie is sold out—a pervasive problem most prevalent when the theatre programs a film in the 34-seat Manzler/Webb Screening Room for one daily showtime. With auditoriums at 50% capacity for the foreseeable future, audience members have to plan their day around visiting The Belcourt, a far cry from its roots as a neighborhood theatre that advertised with a sidewalk sandwich board intended to reel in impulse viewers. The Belcourt has thus far been able to contend with its corporate competitors’ free ticket reservations, ample parking, affordable subscription services like Regal Unlimited and AMC A-List, and laxer pandemic protocols. However, as COVID fatigue sets in and the multiplex further takes up the arthouse mantle and adapts it to a more low-maintenance viewing environment, our region’s cinephiles must remember what vital contributions the theatre has made to Nashville’s civic and artistic life and what all its stakeholders must do to ensure that The Belcourt maintains its relevance through its 2025 centennial and beyond.