Bryn Mawr Film Institute endures

Bryn Mawr Film Institute – Pierce Laveran ’24

Everyone enjoys kicking back and enjoying an entertaining evening in the movie theater with friends or family. In recent times, however, with the spread of COVID-19, all movie theaters were forced to shut down temporarily, and many people began to prefer the practicality of watching movies at home.

Located only a couple of minutes away from campus, Bryn Mawr Film Institute has been thriving in its recent years, despite the roadblocks our world and the Institute itself have faced. In addition to its grand appearance, the almost century-old building is deeply rooted in the history of Bryn Mawr. The Institute can teach us a lot about the significance of movie theaters and how their prominence in society has grown over the past century.

“Having to confront all of that [the pandemic] so suddenly and make such a sudden shift was a challenge for our community,” BMFI’s Senior Director of Education and Administration Dr. Andrew Douglas said. “In less than two weeks, we had things up and running virtually where we were offering movies, education, discussions, free lessons, and original content.”

“We heard from people who participated in our programs from other countries, continents, other time zones,” Dr. Douglas said.

Bryn Mawr Film Institute, previously known as The Seville Theater, has been in the Bryn Mawr community’s spotlight since 1926. 

The building was inspired by big-city movie palaces, which could be seen through elements such as the ornate ceiling details and the dramatic atrium. Brought to life by William Harold Lee, an architect who designed over 200 theaters, the Institute stood out against all of its surrounding buildings and became a large point of attraction.

Lee’s architectural choices encapsulate the old age of Bryn Mawr Film Institute. 

“In the case of this building, we tend to think of the instances where aesthetics and utilty are given equal footing.”

Dr. Andrew Douglas

“In the case of this building, we tend to think of the instances where aesthetics and utility are given equal footing,” Dr. Douglas said. “That doesn’t seem to happen as much anymore in commercial buildings, but it did happen then, and most of, if not all movie theaters in that era, remind us of that.”

This early era in the history of movie theaters was not a flourishing time.

“The movie industry was not held in high regard in the 1920s by many segments of society. There were some fair reasons and some not fair reasons why the movies had that reputation in these times,” Dr. Douglas said.

“One of the things that the industry did to combat that was to not just make their movies worth seeing but make their venues a destination unto themself. They were very ornate, often designed in a specific regional or historical style,” Dr. Douglas said. “In most towns, the first public building to be air-conditioned was the movie theater because they wanted people to not just think about what they were going to see; they wanted them to think about the whole experience being something special.”

“The fact that there used to be one [a movie theater] every couple of miles down Lancaster Avenue tells you something about this area; that it was prosperous.”

Dr. Douglas

“The fact that there used to be one [a movie theater] every couple of miles down Lancaster Avenue tells you something about this area; that it was prosperous,” Dr. Douglas said.

From the 1950s to the late 20th century, the Bryn Mawr movie theater began to lose its sparkle. Surrounded by competition from more modern theaters in addition to the loss of many signature elements, like the skylight and the classic marquee, led to a downward trend in audiences.

With the help of the community and a strong campaign, the building avoided being converted into a gym in the early 2000s, and the Institute came back stronger than ever.

A big reason for Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s success is its large array of movies and genres. 

“We show a lot of classic movies culturally literate and educated people like you and your peers will have heard of. A lot of those really important and interesting movies we show here,” Dr. Douglas said.

“On the other hand, we show new movies as well. We show them in a variety of topics and genres, and I think that for a demographic that might be very comfortable and used to watching things at home on a smaller screen alone, the value and added experience of seeing a movie on the big screen in an auditorium full of people makes a huge difference.”

Dr. Douglas emphasized the overall enhancement of the experience while in the thrilling atmosphere of a movie theater.

“Even if no one’s saying anything, you feel the energy of the other people, and you feel them reacting as you are, and it enhances the experience,” Dr. Douglas said. “It’s one worth having—otherwise movies wouldn’t have been around for 100 years.”