June 8, 2016

Garden Theatre’s Special Programs Are a Hit With Princeton Audiences

When word spread last week that Whit Stillman, director of the film Love and Friendship, would be making an appearance at Princeton’s Garden Theatre following a 6:30 p.m. screening last Sunday, the showing quickly sold out.

That didn’t surprise Chris Collier, co-director of Renew Theaters, the Doylestown, Pa.-based company that took over the Nassau Street movie house two years ago. The same thing happened when actor Ethan Hawke and writer/director Michael Showalter, both raised in Princeton, visited the Garden when their latest films were screened this past April. 

“Our main attractions do well, but it is these programs that have wonderful connections with the artist behind them that do best in Princeton,” Mr. Collier said the day after the Stillman appearance. “I think we’re really starting to find our groove and how we fit into the Princeton community. What we’ve found to be surprising is that special events do way better than we expected and outperform the main attractions.”

That is not always the case in other Renew theaters, which are located in refurbished old movie houses in Doylestown, Jenkintown, and Ambler, Pa. Each theater has a different audience. Princeton has also responded well to the classic films that are screened at the Garden. “They tend to be absolutely packed houses,” Mr. Collier said. “There must be a lot of film-minded people here, but there is not a big film presence at the University.”

Mr. Stillman’s appearance at the theatre was “a wonderful testament to community collaboration,” Mr. Collier said, crediting the Princeton Public Library with “starting the ball rolling.” Mr. Stillman has also written a novelization of the film, which is based on the unfinished Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. Mr. Stillman signed copies of the book after the screening, which was co-sponsored by the theatre, the library, and Labyrinth Books.

Other films by Mr. Stillman include Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress and Barcelona. Asked how Love and Friendship came into being, he said he had been a fan of Jane Austen since reading Northanger Abbey, a parody of Gothic novels, when he was 16. He reread it when he was older and liked it; then read Lady Susan and liked it even better. “It seemed to be very Oscar-Wildean,” he said. “I thought it could appeal. It was a chance to show the critical, scathing Jane Austen rather than the romantic.”

After deciding to do the novelization, he worked on it for 12 years while doing other projects, Mr. Stillman said. He is proud of the film, which is his first to make the top ten. He called the cast, which includes Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, “incredible.” Both appeared in his film The Last Days of Disco.

Love and Friendship was filmed in Ireland, a country with which Mr. Stillman is familiar since his daughter has lived there for several years. Shooting in Ireland is less costly than in England, and the country has plenty of the Georgian houses that form a backdrop to the action of Love and Friendship, he said.

The enthusiastic crowd at Sunday’s screening was typical of those that include filmmaker question-and-answer sessions. “What that says to us is that this is a community that really likes getting inside the films they see. That’s an awesome open door for us,” Mr. Collier said. “The multiplexes on Route One do their thing. What we can bring is a conversation with Whit Stillman or a screening of Casablanca. We’re always looking for ways to enhance the experience and have a lot of fun with it.”

Before each screening at the Garden, a public service announcement urges moviegoers to turn off their cellphones. Local personalities such as Mayor Liz Lempert and Arts Council of Princeton executive director Jeff Nathanson are among those who have appeared in these messages. Mr. Collier was especially happy with a recent one by Ethan Hawke, shot when he was at the theatre to show his film Born to be Blue.

“We gave him the script that his PR team had approved, and we told him to feel free to embellish,” Mr. Collier said. “He did, and he was great. He called us ‘the greatest theatre in the world.’ That made us so happy.”