Renovations bring Cornell Cinema into sharp focus

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Syl Kacapyr
Willard Straight Theatre
Michael Roman
Willard Straight Theatre

A state-of-the-art digital projection system and new screen – as well as more faculty, alumni and film industry guest speakers, live music and premieres – await cinephiles this spring at Willard Straight Theatre.

Mary Fessenden, director of Cornell Cinema, says competition for audience members is intense, “but when you’re in a theater, you can be immersed in the film without interruptions. I tell students that Cornell Cinema can offer a mental health break, a chance to transport yourself into another world and not be constantly plugged in.”

And the opportunity to hear a director speak about his movie or a faculty member explain the history of the era a film depicts isn’t something you can access on your iPhone, she said.

“In the movie theater, you get to experience the movie how it was made to be experienced,” said Tyler Spring ’16, president of the Cornell Japanese Animation Society, which is partnering with the cinema to show three anime films this spring. Members of his group, he said, enjoy comparing differences between Japanese animation and other animation styles.

The improved theater offers viewers 2,000 pixels per inch on a larger, brighter screen, and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound. Projectionists no longer load reels of film onto projectors; films are “ingested” into a server and shown with the push of a button.

“With digital projection, you never see scratches or other signs of deterioration that occur with physical prints,” Fessenden said. “The image is perfect every time, and when you see a classic film that’s been digitally restored, it’s likely to look better than you’ve ever seen it.”

The theater even boasts a new red velvet curtain that can be easily opened and closed, allowing the stage to be used for other performances. The renovations were the result of a substantial gift from the Class of 1950 and an anonymous donor family, said Kent Hubbell, dean of students.

Spring semester highlights

Cornell Cinema kicks off the spring semester with a selection of Alfred Hitchcock silent films, all recent digital restorations by the British Film Institute; most will be accompanied by live music. These films run Jan. 29-Feb. 22, and Hitchcock passes are available to see them all at a discount.

Other spring highlights:

  • Feb. 6, “Blackfish,” a documentary about Tilikum, a killer whale responsible for the deaths of three people, including his trainer. Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg ’89, featured in the film, will join the screening via Skype.
  • Feb. 22, Hitchcock’s “Champagne” at the Elegant Winter Party and Benefit with live musical accompaniment by Philip Carli.
  • March 6, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Chuck Workman will present his latest documentary, “What Is Cinema?”
  • March 11, “On Foot: Brooklyn,” will feature a visit from director Beth O’Brien ’99 and composer/musician Craig Shepard, who is the subject of the film and will perform live with the screening.
  • March 19, “Particle Fever,” a documentary on the Higgs boson “God particle” and the CERN Large Hadron Collider, with an introduction by Peter Wittich, associate professor of physics.
  • March and April, a series of 1970s films, shown in conjunction with the course Politics of ’70s Film taught by Jonathan Kirshner, professor of government and author of “Hollywood’s Golden Age: Politics, Society and Seventies Film in America.”
  • April 11, a digital restoration of the original “Total Recall” with director Paul Verhoeven (“Robocop,” “Basic Instinct,” “Starship Troopers,” “Showgirls”) in person.
  • April, several films from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. Filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki, assistant professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts, who studied at the lab, will be joined by two colleagues for this series.

For more information, visit To buy tickets, visit

Kathy Hovis is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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