Projecting into the Future -June 2013
by: Jason Graziadei
photography by: Jim Powers
It was mid-January, and the Starlight’s dining room was empty, as were the streets of downtown Nantucket outside. Watson and Weiner, two of the four owners of the family-run theater on North Union Street, had just signed a new five-year lease with Nantucket Island Resorts to continue operating the Starlight.
The ink was dry, and it should have been a weight off their shoulders to know they’d locked up another five years in business at a prime downtown location. Except it wasn’t.
The evolution of the film industry from 35-millimeter film to digital projection had made the Starlight something of a dinosaur from a bygone era – one that was on the verge going extinct. Watson and Weiner knew the time had come to replace the theater’s old 35mm Simplex projector and convert to a digital model if they wanted to survive. They just didn’t know where they were going to come up with the money – as much as $100,000 – to make it happen.
“That was landlord’s biggest concern signing us on. ‘How are you going to do it? What are you going to do’?” Weiner said. “We didn’t have any clear answers for them.”
On that cold day back in January, they kicked the tires on any number of solutions, expressed a deep reluctance to go to the island community asking for money, and half- joked about the possibility of a wealthy anonymous donor walking through their door with a pile of cash.
Roughly one month later, they’d come up with a plan.
On Feb. 22, Watson and Weiner launched an online fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com with a title that said it all: “S.O.S. ... Save Our Screen ... from going dark.”
Kickstarter.com allows users to “back” a project on its website in exchange for some type of reward or experience offered by the project’s sponsor, and it has facilitated the funding of thousands of initiatives from films and record la- bels, to musical and theater productions, as well as literary endeavors. The Starlight’s campaign was highlighted by a 12-minute video produced by Mao “Manny” Rojas that fea- tured heartfelt testimony from island residents like Chicken Box nightclub co-owner Rocky Fox about their experiences at the theater.
Yet the goal seemed daunting. The Starlight hoped to raise $92,500 for the digital conversion in about a month and a half. And if the theater didn’t reach that threshold by April 8, it wouldn’t receive any of the money people pledged to its campaign on Kickstarter.
“A few people we know in the film business were like ‘there’s no way you’re ever going to get there. There’s no way’,” Weiner said. “And we hit the launch button, crossed our fingers, and said ‘alright, let’s go.’ And it just steam- rolled from there. It was just amazing.”
It was school-vacation week – probably the slowest seven days of the year on Nantucket – but word of the Starlight’s Kickstarter campaign spread quickly on social- media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and the pledges started rolling in.
“We almost stopped looking at the site because we were getting text messages and phone calls, constantly, saying ‘it just went up! Someone else just donated’!” Weiner recalled. “People were watching it like it was the stock market.”
Within three weeks, the Starlight had reached its goal of $92,500. By the Kickstarter campaign’s April 8 deadline, the theater had received donations from 737 people totaling over $111,000.
“I just think it’s unbelievable the way this community got behind us to help us out,” Watson said. “It’s hard to say anything else. I just keep saying ‘thank you’ to people. Now the hard work begins.”
A new Christie Solaria One digital projector was ordered, and the additional funds raised through the Kickstarter campaign will allow the Starlight to make additional improvements to the theater, including new lighting and soundproofing.
“What it’s done for us is now we can improve the interior of the theater,” Watson said.
“The projector itself was the goal. But now we can do the walls and the ceilings in the theater and the soundproofing and sound system to make it a better experience. None of that money is going into the restaurant or us. It’s all theater-based. That’s what people donated for.”
While Nantucket’s year-round and seasonal residents have demonstrated their generosity in countless fundraising efforts over the years (among the latest and largest was the $34 million campaign for the other island movie theater, the Dreamland), yet the speed and Internet-based nature of the Starlight’s Kickstarter campaign made it unique.
It was, perhaps, a fitting show of support for an establishment that is itself a unique piece of Nantucket. The Starlight, which was known as the Gaslight Theatre for decades under the ownership of Rob Mitchell, has evolved into a hybrid business: a 90-seat movie theater in the heart of the core district that features a full-service restaurant, bar and a popular patio area where musicians perform during the summer months.
Moviegoers are allowed to bring a glass of beer or wine into the theater with them – something Watson and Weiner’s customers say is one of their favorite aspects of the Starlight experience.
The intimate 90-seat theater “almost looks, right now, like we took a garage or something and made a theater out of it,” Weiner said with a laugh.
He and Watson are mindful, however, to make sure that the new upgrades of the projector and the interior of the theater do not alter any of the Starlight’s charm.
“We’ve learned from the experience of other places that have done a change and it’s not always the best change,” Weiner said. “That’s what we don’t want to do – make such a drastic change that it affects the whole thing.”
Watson and Weiner are not only co-owners of the Starlight, but also brothers-in-law. Weiner is married to Watson’s sister, town treasurer Deborah Weiner, who along with Watson’s mother, Susan Widger, round out the four-person family team that owns and operates the Starlight.
They acquired the business from Jim Warwick and his wife, Ruth Simpson Warwick, in 2007. Watson had been working for the Warwicks in 2004, and learned about the movie business and operating the 35mm projector from Mitchell.
But it’s the two men, Watson and Weiner, who live and breathe the Starlight. Weiner cooks lunch and dinner seven days a week in the kitchen, while Watson lives in the second-floor apartment above the Starlight, operates the projector, and handles the movie selection.
“When I started, I came to run the restaurant and knew nothing about running movies,” Watson said. “But Rob Mitchell, who used to own the Gaslight, was still here teach- ing them how to run the projector, so I went in there and took over. It took me a little less than 24 hours to master it. He taught me one day, and I showed a movie the next night. I was (expletive) my pants.”
The fundraising campaign to convert the theater to digital projection is in now in the past, but there’s another challenge that won’t be going away: the Starlight is once again operating in a two-movie-theater town. The return of the Dream- land Theater – just a block away from the Starlight – means Watson and Weiner are now competing against a well-financed nonprofit with a state-of-the-art, 320-seat theater.
But the return of the Dreamland has been marked so far by friendly competition, recent cooperation on movie scheduling, and a realization that another draw to downtown Nantucket was a good thing for the Starlight, the two said.
“They’ve both been in existence for 40 years together, so there’s no reason why they can’t continue to coexist,” Watson said. “When I took over this place, Jon (Anastos) was running the old Dreamland and he taught me a lot. I’d walk across the street and ask him questions and he’d give me the answers,” Watson said of Anastos, who was rehired to manage the new Dreamland, but has since left the theater.
“I just went over there the other day, sat down and talked about the schedules and said ‘OK, here we are for the second week in a row with the same movies, so let’s talk’,” Watson added. “We worked it out so each night it’s a movie they’re not playing. They’re willing to work with us. I think as long as we work together, it’s fine.” Weiner agreed.
“Each one of us has a different objective and way of going about it – they’re in their own world, and we’re in our own world, and we’re trying to share what’s in the middle,” he said. “And they have a lot of hurdles and obstacles just like we do. It’s competition, and we understand that. But all in all, we both want to bring movies to Nantucket.”
Jason Graziadei is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.