Winchester — Twenty-one years after its debut, the curtain closes on the Magic Lantern Theater in Winchester.
The nonprofit organization, which has screened dozens of films and documentaries that might otherwise not have screened in local cinemas, will draw its final bow at a special event at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Winchester on June 2.
“I think we’ve served a real purpose,” said Mark Lore, coordinator for the nonprofit founded in 2001, Thursday as he sat in the outdoor Taylor Pavilion at Loudoun Street Mall, where the Magic Lantern Theater films on an inflatable screen showed. “People didn’t have to go to Fairfax to see a movie they wanted to see.”
Lore said the Magic Lantern Theater was born when he and his wife moved to Winchester in 1999. The couple, along with some other friends who were new to the community, missed an art-house cinema that would screen independent and foreign films—films with high artistic merit but relatively low box-office appeal.
At the time, he said, the only cinemas in Winchester were Apple Blossom 6 in Apple Blossom Mall and Delco Cinemas in Delco Plaza.
“It wasn’t exactly a movie lover’s paradise,” Lore said.
Combined, the two theaters only offered eight screens, so it didn’t make economic sense for them to book off-the-beaten-track films. As a result, the majority of the films shown at Apple Blossom 6 and Delco Cinemas came from the Hollywood studio system and were designed to appeal to a wide audience.
Lore said he and his friends originally wanted to open a quality art-house cinema in downtown Winchester, but that idea fell through because a boutique cinema probably couldn’t survive in a small town. They didn’t give up, however, and in 2001 they came up with the idea of showing independent and foreign films, classic films and documentaries outdoors and in public venues such as the Handley Library and Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester and the Barns of Rose Hills in Berryville.
“The only real fixed costs would be renting the films and paying for the rights to show them,” Lore said.
The Magic Lantern Theater’s first indoor screening of the year was at the Handley Library and showed Cinema Paradiso, an Italian film that won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. August 2001 was the non-profit organization’s first outdoor screening of the classic film Some Like It Hot.
Initially, Lore said, the films shown by the Magic Lantern Theater were on 16mm film. When DVDs became popular in the early 2000s, the non-profit organization began showing them by projecting the films onto large screens instead.
The Magic Lantern Theater became very popular as it staged up to 10 outdoor films each summer and generated enough revenue from ticket sales to ensure its continued operation. Eventually, there was even enough money in the bank to offer $8,000 in grants to eight local aspiring filmmakers.
But change was on the horizon. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Netflix, Hulu, and other online streaming services allowed people to watch hundreds of thousands of movies, including independent and foreign films, for a small monthly fee. In a short time, the unique and sometimes hard-to-find films championed by the Magic Lantern Theater became readily available for home viewing.
Additionally, Apple Blossom 6 and Delco Cinemas have been replaced with two new, upgraded theaters: AMC Classic Apple Blossom 12, which features state-of-the-art equipment and stadium seating, and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which serves food and alcoholic beverages during screenings and has a popular movie club , which regularly screens independent, foreign, classic and cult films.
“Around 2018, the board and I started talking about how to move forward from here,” Lore said. “We have an audience and people appreciate what we’re doing and we can move on with it … but people have choices and we’re not getting any younger.”
The board finally decided it was time to fade to black. Lore said they wanted to retire Magic Lantern Theater in the fall of 2021 with a big 20th anniversary shindig, but COVID-19 hit in March 2020, making it impossible for people to gather in large numbers.
“We told our audience to hold on while we waited for things to work out, and we looked at the overall situation with Magic Lantern,” he said.
Last fall, as the coronavirus threat subsided, Lore said the board had decided to end the Magic Lantern Theater’s run this summer.
“We toyed with the idea of doing some sort of mini film festival, but it seemed terribly complicated,” he said. “We decided to talk to our old friends at the Alamo … and we decided to have a movie night at 6:15 p.m. on June 2.”
Lore said Magic Lantern’s departure will be a private matter, with spots only being offered to about 500 people who have supported the nonprofit over the past 21 years. The last film shown is The Worst Person in the World, a Norwegian film nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Academy Awards.
To preserve the Magic Lantern legacy, Lore said the nonprofit organization donated all of its projection equipment to the Frederick County Parks and Recreation Department.
“You know us because we used to show two or three movies in the parks every summer,” Lore said. “They want to keep doing that.”