Marquis expands its role with nonprofit screenings

I feel like the movie theater is really a community center … The more we work together and support one another, the more fun events we can create for people that are affordable and that help groups that don’t have a lot of resources. — Ben Wells

MIDDLEBURY — Competing with movie mega-plexes for viewers can be challenging for small community theaters like Middlebury’s Marquis. But owner Ben Wells is more than holding his own, thanks to a formula that includes working with local businesses and nonprofits to secure small independent films that shine a light on — and generate revenue for — environmental and social issues.

These so-called “one-off Wednesday” screenings allow the Marquis to showcase thought-provoking material that has a local following beyond the traditional blockbusters.

“There are a lot of the smaller independent films that aren’t a great fit for us for a three-week run, but they can be a terrific fit for a one-day event with multiple screenings on that day,” Wells said.

Sometimes it’s local residents who request the specialty films. And then there are others that hit the screen thanks to a partnership Wells has developed with nonprofits like Standing up for Social Justice (SURJ), Homeward Bound – the Addison County Humane Society, and businesses like Green Mountain Adventures/Middlebury Mountaineer.

It was around three years ago that Wells first collaborated with SURJ on multiple screenings of “I am Not Your Negro,” an award-winning documentary about racism in the United States.

“There was terrific support and turnout for that,” he recalled.

It was so successful that Wells and SURJ leaders Joanna Colwell and Cathy Comstock talked about the prospect of organizing a fall/winter film series with a racial justice theme.

They agreed on a format, and the “Seeing Color, Seeking Justice” film series was born. The series will continue this Wednesday, Sept. 11, with “The Way Home: Women Talk About Race in America.” Admission is free for both the 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. showings, with a suggested donation of $10. All proceeds go to SURJ and Benefit for Peace. There will be a discussion after the 4 o’clock show.

“The Way Home” fallows 64 women, representing a cross-section of cultures, to share their experiences of racism in America.

Colwell said the “Seeing Color, Seeking Justice” film series is part of SURJ’s anti-racism education mission. The group also makes financial contributions to anti-racism causes and by appearing at a variety of events — including demonstrations — organized by people of color.

Colwell said the Marquis is proving a great partner in conveying SURJ’s advocacy efforts.

“Film is such a powerful way to teach,” she said.

She praised Wells for hosting the films.

“He’s been so supportive, and it’s been a lot of fun to work with him, choose films, and see the community respond,” Colwell said.

That response has in some cases resulted in sold-out shows and the unfortunate need to turn some people away. In some cases — such as with “I am Not Your Negro” — the Marquis tries to add showings in order to meet viewing demands.

Wells and SURJ leaders are still firming up the balance of the “Seeing Color, Seeking Justice” film series. They’re trying to secure “Harriet,” a powerful biographical film about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

Another nonprofit, Homeward Bound, has thus far benefitted from two movie events at the Marquis, and a third event is coming up on Oct. 23, according to Wells. The film is called “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” The film celebrates the special relationship between a racecar driver and his golden retriever. Ticket proceeds will help Homeward Bound.

Homeward Bound Executive Director Jessica Danyow is grateful to Wells for the ongoing support. And most animal-related films are family friendly, she noted.

“It’s a great way to expose kids to a positive message about pets,” Danyow said. “And (the screenings) give us a chance to talk about things we’re doing and reach people we don’t normally reach.”

The Marquis’ latest partnership with Middlebury Mountaineer will come into view on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m., with the screening of “Dirt Magic.” The film documents Downieville, Calif.’s journey from a dying mining town to a mountain-biking hub. That transformation was shaped by a grassroots organization and has been fueled by what is now the sport’s rowdiest festival. And the effort all started with a van, a chainsaw and a few maxed-out credit cards.

“Dirt Magic” was produced by Patagonia, a U.S. manufacturer of outdoor clothing that is carried at Middlebury Mountaineer. Proceeds from the movie ticket sales ($5 for individuals, $10 for families) and a related raffle will all benefit the Addison County Bike Club.

This will be the Marquis’ third collaboration with Middlebury Mountaineer, owned by Steve Atocha, who was able to secure “Dirt Magic” thanks to his retail partnership with Patagonia.

Wells and Atocha previously teamed up on the screening of “Artificial,” a film about farm-raised salmon and salmon fishing. The New Haven River Anglers Association received proceeds from ticket sales.

Wells pledged to continue his efforts to cultivate films that meet the specific tastes and causes of local viewers and businesses. He’s currently working on a cross-promotion with the Vermont Book Shop. Specifically, he’s planning an Oct. 30 screening of a movie called “Scary Movies to Tell in the Dark” that’s based on a book of the same name. The Marquis will show the movie and Vermont Book Shop will sell copies of the book. Children who show up in costume will be entered in a raffle featuring donated prizes from both businesses.

“I feel like the movie theater is really a community center,” Wells said. “There’s strength in teamwork, so the more we work together and support one another, the more fun events we can create for people that are affordable and that help groups that don’t have a lot of resources.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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