The familiar scent of popcorn greets visitors to the Cable Car Cinema, but the movies are anything but typical blockbuster films.
Facing South Main Street, the theater has welcomed moviegoers with independent films, documentaries, short films and foreign films since 1976. It also hosts a variety of film festivals throughout the year, from the Children’s Film Festival over Presidents Weekend to the Providence French Film Festival in early spring.
A family affair
The Cable Car Cinema was founded in 1976 by Raymond Bilodeau, whose family retained control of the theater for the following 35 years.
His nephew, Eric Bilodeau, managed the theater until 2008, when husband and wife team Daniel Kamil and Emily Steffian purchased the theater from Eric’s father.
The Cable Car “was and continues to be a family business,” Kamil said.
Kamil and Steffian used to own a theater together in another part of Rhode Island but sold it after they heard the Cable Car was “looking for a change,” Kamil said.
But the change in ownership had its own difficulties.
“The biggest challenge when you buy someone else’s business is buying all that history,” Steffian said. “We had to put the die-hard fans at ease. People were afraid we would do something drastic that would change the essence of the place.”
Since their purchase, Kamil and Steffian have built the Cable Car’s indie reputation, handpicking the movies they show.
“Distributors send us films all the time,” Kamil said. “We research what will potentially play here. It’s the fun part of the job, watching movies every night.”
The couple said they also host weekly dinners with friends to review the films in a group setting.
“It’s a fun way to share the process,” Steffian said.
Couches and cuisine
The cinema, a ten-minute walk from College Hill, provides an intimate alternative to massive multiplexes with its atmosphere and offerings. Audiences at the Cable Car Cinema and Cafe can lounge in plush leather armchairs and sip beer or wine while watching the indie film of their choice.
“I think that’s what people find endearing about it. This place is quirky,” Kamil said. The 3,000 foot space — which was converted from a truck garage — is split between a cafe in the front and a theater in the back. The theater accommodates about 100 customers, “depending on how many people nestle into the couches,” said Chris Mulligan, the Cable Car’s technical director.
The cafe at the Cable Car also serves a sprawling array of pastries from Silver Star Bakery, bagels from Bagel Gourmet and coffee, beer and wine, in addition to smoothies, sandwiches and salads made in-house. Popcorn and candy, which monopolize menus at the Providence Place Cinemas and IMAX, make up only a small portion of the fare.
Kamil and Steffian renovated the cafe in 2010, Steffian said. They “physically changed the whole space” by expanding the staff’s area behind the counter and “creating a real kitchen,” she said.
“Food is a big part of this place. We wouldn’t exist without it,” Kamil said.
The Cable Car earns only 35 to 40 percent of revenue from ticket sales and derives the rest from food sales, though most other theaters get 80 to 85 percent of profits from ticketing, he said.
“Our bagels and coffee are fuel for laboring (Rhode Island School of Design) students,” Kamil said. Undergrads at the nearby art school use the cafe as a hang-out and are often unaware that the Cable Car doubles as a theater, he said. “They think the movie posters are just decoration.”
Reeling them in
Since its opening almost 40 years ago, the Cable Car Cinema has become a popular local fixture.
Jeffrey Eugenides ’83 envisioned the Cable Car as the setting for the two main characters’ first date in his most recent novel, “The Marriage Plot.” Celebrities such as Danny DeVito have turned up for film screenings. The Providence Phoenix has ranked the cinema the “best movie theater” on and off for the last several years.
Despite recognition from notable figures and publications, the Cable Car remains a haven primarily for students at RISD and Providence’s older “graduated art crowd,” Kamil said.
It hosts a number of film festivals throughout the year, including the Providence French Film Festival, which concluded its annual two-week run at the Cable Car Sunday. The festival, sponsored by the University’s French and Modern Cultures and Media departments, featured a diverse offering of films for Francophiles of all tastes — from a cartoon about a cat to a historical drama about Marie Antoinette.
“The Cable Car is the best place to host the festival,” said Stephanie Ravillon, lecturer in French studies and one of the festival’s coordinators. “I just love the atmosphere. There’s something really nice and lively about it.”
The Cable Car’s location between College Hill and downtown “achieves this wonderful synergy between people we’re trying to get — Brown students and people from the city,” said Shoggy Waryn, senior lecturer of French studies and artistic director of the Providence French Film Festival.
Kevin O’Farrell ’16 said he enjoyed attending a screening of “Chroniques sexuelles d’une famille aujourd’hui” for homework for FREN 0400: “Intermediate French II.” He praised the Cable Car for its convenient distance from College Hill and “small, cozy, warm” vibe.
O’Farrell said he would “definitely” return to the Cable Car with friends.
“It’s just a good experience,” he said. “It’s more intimate than going to a regular cinema. You feel like you’re at home.”
In a world of rapidly changing technology, the Cable Car is trying to keep up with the competition while retaining its alternative character.
Studios are discontinuing the production of 35 millimeter film in the face of the dominance of digital projectors, he said, adding that the Cable Car has had the same 60-year-old projector since its opening.
“Most bigger theaters have already made the transition. We’re a holdout,” Kamil said.
In response to the industry-wide trend, the Cable Car has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $48,500 for a new digital projector by March 31, according to the Cable Car’s website.
Within five days of the campaign’s launch, a devoted group of “loyal customers” and independent filmmakers had already contributed 26 percent of the goal, Kamil said, adding he is “confident” the campaign will be successful.
The Cable Car’s transition to digital projection is sparking a discussion about the future of movie theaters in the face of mass media.
“There’s a meta-conversation going on about media,” Steffian said. “You can download and stream movies now. It’s harder to get kids to come to the movies. But I think art houses are still important.”
Part of their importance resides in the experiences they provide, Waryn said.
“We need people to support local theaters. I think the experience of watching a film in a theater is valuable, instead of watching it on Netflix or the Internet,” Waryn said. “You’re not watching a movie while checking your Gmail or your Facebook status. You’re actually getting immersed in the film.”
“It’s a full experience, and we are losing that,” he added.