A new movie theater could premiere in downtown Westport as soon as 2013 -- that's the goal of a fundraising campaign announced Monday by the Westport Cinema Initiative.
Leaders of the nonprofit group, meeting in Bobby Q's restaurant, said they intend to launch the campaign in September and aim to raise approximately $4 million for construction and operating costs, as well as an endowment fund for a new cinema complex. The WCI is targeting three downtown locations for a two-screen theater: a new building behind the Main Street restaurant, Tavern on Main; redevelopment of an existing building on Main Street, or the renovation of the current site of the town's post office at 154 Post Road East.
"We all want to see movies here in Westport," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, who also serves as the president of WCI's board of directors. "We have the opportunity to create a lasting legacy, an institution that cherishes the art of cinema, much like Westport has been a supporter of arts and culture for a long time."
A new downtown theater arguably represents the centerpiece of plans by town officials, local business leaders and community activists to revitalize Westport's town center. WCI members envision, in particular, that the prospective movie house, which is modeled on local theaters such as the Garden Cinemas in Norwalk, would help to reinvigorate downtown nightlife.
"Downtown at night is just dormant," said WCI Treasurer Jerry Minsky. "We go to Fairfield, we go to South Norwalk. We hardly go to Westport at night anymore, and that's just a tragedy."
The planned cinema would show independent films and operate as a nonprofit facility. WCI leaders said they hope the theater would also appeal to Westport's youth.
"We are bringing something to the town that is for our kids, so our kids can see movies when they want" said WCI Director Sandy Lefkowitz.
WCI was established earlier this year, and has held recent film screenings at venues such as the Westport Country Playhouse and Toquet Hall to promote awareness of the theater project. It will next screen the classic musical "Grease" on July 18 at the Levitt Pavilion. On Sept. 17, it will screen the Woody Allen film "Annie Hall," which won the 1977 Academy Award for Best Picture. Taking place at a yet-to-be determined location, the event will also feature a talk with Brian Hamill, a longtime on-set photographer for Allen.
To fund the screenings and other current-year operating expenses, WCI has launched an "angel donor" fundraising campaign that seeks to amass 50 donors who will contribute $1,000 each. WCI is approximately two-thirds of the way toward that goal, according to Minsky.
WCI leaders are targeting a 2013 opening for the new theater. Construction of the cinema could start once WCI has raised about $2 million or half of the $4 million target in its main fundraising campaign. WCI will seek a wide base of contributors for that campaign, including corporations, foundations, and individual donors, Minsky said. The group hopes to hit its 50 percent fundraising target by January or February 2012.
Downtown movie theaters in Westport date back to 1916. At its peak in the 1980s, Westport had five downtown cinemas. The town, however, has not had a downtown movie house since the Fine Arts theaters closed in 1999.
Several WCI members said they still clearly remember the town's halcyon movie-going era during the 1970s and 1980s.
"I went to a lot of movies downtown when I was growing up," said Larry Perlstein, who is leading WCI's marketing operations. "There were big lines for the theaters. I remember going to see "Jaws," "Earthquake," the Woody Allen movies. That was how I spent the better part of my time."