On a fateful day in 1969, a group of Trinity College students who loved movies met with a United Artists executive and asked him if he would let them show a double feature of Alice’s Restaurant and Yellow Submarine at an auditorium in the campus chemistry building.

“He went out on a limb for us; we looked like a bunch of hippie students,” recalls James Hanley, the co-manager of Cinestudio. “But he said it would cost us $500.” This was a lot of money in those days, especially for college kids. However, Hanley adds, “We said ‘Yes.’ And we sold out the show.”

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Cinestudio co-directors and co-founders James Hanley and Peter McMorris, and John Michael Mason, chairman of the Cinestudio board of directors.

That first showing at Cinestudio, on Feb. 16, 1970, began a run of distinguished and interesting films in a special setting that has continued to this day. And through the years the venue has been upgraded. Its co-managers, Hanley and Peter McMorris, who never really left the campus after they graduated, will mark the studio’s 50th anniversary by re-showing those two original films on Feb. 22.

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Cinestudio isn’t just for Trinity students, and the nonprofit venue has no formal connection with the college. The theater has long attracted members of the public who turn out to see cutting-edge movies with a first-rate sound-and-projecting system in a beautiful setting.

When you walk into the 465-seat theater, one of the first things you will notice, after the red carpeting embroidered with Cinestudio’s lion insignia, is the ornate gold Austrian curtain covering the screen. It rises majestically before every show.

“It was installed in 1973,” Hanley says. “MGM thought a curtain represents a sense of occasion. When the curtain is raised, the journey begins.

“If you sit in front of a blank screen — and, even worse, you’re hit with ads — all of it works against taking that journey.”

Hanley, McMorris, the theater’s board of directors and the dedicated group of about 60 volunteers have a proud, protective attitude toward Cinestudio. Hanley calls it “an art house.” John Michael Mason, who chairs the board of directors, says, “We treat films as art: to convey the idea [that] it’s entertainment but of artistic quality. We are highly respectful of the films.”

“There aren’t many theaters still doing this,” Hanley says. “Commercial theaters, with their multiple screens, rely principally on selling food. [Cinestudio sells soda out of a vending machine; that’s it.] Their focus is not necessarily on providing the kind of experience we do here.”

Hanley says, “If you want to see a film the way the filmmaker intended, this is one of the few places in the country where you can do that.”

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Cinestudio co-director and co-director James Hanley explains the operation of the projectors.

But many Connecticut residents, even those who have lived here for many years, have never heard of Cinestudio. My wife and I discovered it when we were living in Hartford in 1986; I still vividly recall seeing Lawrence of Arabia on that big screen (37 feet wide and 17 feet high). Recently we made a return trip, driving up from New Haven, to see a Saturday matinee showing of Downton Abbey. We sat in the front row of the balcony, a real treat.

But it’s not easy to find Cinestudio. As noted on their website (cinestudio.org), your GPS will take you to the theater’s listed address, 300 Summit St., but then you have to park on that street and walk through the archways leading to the main quad. The theater’s new lighted sign will beckon you.

The Cinestudio folks know what they’re up against, that these days many people prefer not to make that drive and short walk, that they instead will sit at home on their couches and stream a movie or TV series. Hanley acknowledges attendance is not as high as in the 1970s, when there were no VCRs or VHS movies nor the later DVDs. There wasn’t even cable TV. But he describes the audience totals as “steady.”

“Our new direction,” Mason says, “is to compete with Netflix by offering a top-of-the-line movie theater. It feels unique, it has a purpose, it’s connected to the community.” (Special events include the Connecticut LGBTQ, Reel Youth Hartford and Trinity Film festivals.)

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An interior view of Cinestudio.

Mason asserts that, on a big screen, “Scary things are scarier; funny things are funnier; dramatic things are more dramatic.”

Hanley and Mason take me up to the projection room. “This is where the magic happens,” Mason says. Hanley tells me all about the two 70mm film projectors, made in the early 1970s. But he noted, with perceptible disappointment, that about 95 percent of Cinestudio’s offerings are now shown via the digital projector. It uses small hard drives resembling computer discs rather than the big old reels for the film projectors.

“We try to play film whenever we can,” Hanley says. “But it’s more expensive.”

Hanley notes that the commercial movie industry is now almost entirely digital; that’s what you see in most theaters. But he says perceptive audiences will pick up on the depth of field, contrasts and colors a film offers compared with the “flat” appearance of a digital product.

“When we showed the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey for its 50th anniversary, we had a non-digital print,” Hanley recalls. “That showing was exactly what it was like in 1968.”

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John Michael Mason, left, and theater co-director and co-founder James Hanley in front of the theater.

Hanley also lights up while recounting the showing of Woodstock, first when it came out in 1970 and then when it was revived. “When we first showed it, we added late-night shows that started at 1 in the morning. Our loudspeakers blew the roof off this place! But it was not just loud; it was high-quality sound.”

As we stroll through the theater, Mason points out posters for the National Theater Live presentations that come to Cinestudio via satellite from London. Bolshoi Ballet shows are also offered from Moscow.

Hanley says the staff likes to mix popular first-run quality films such as The Irishman and Marriage Story (even though both are available on Netflix) with other fare that audiences will not know. “People can discover new directors here. They’ll come and take a chance.”

As for the admission price, it’s less than at commercial theaters: $10 general admission, $8 for seniors and students, $7 for Cinestudio members. 


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Coming Soon to Cinestudio

Jan. 26 A live performance of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Giselle, 1 p.m.

Jan. 26-29 Harriet, the 2019 biopic about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman

Jan. 30-Feb. 1 Ford v Ferrari, the 2019 film about the real-life battle to build a revolutionary race car in the 1960s

Feb. 2-5 Dark Waters, the 2019 legal drama about a lawyer taking on DuPont over groundwater contamination

Feb. 6-8 Queen & Slim, a 2019 take on the classic Bonnie & Clyde

Feb. 9-11 Tokyo Twilight, a 1957 Japanese film about two sisters who are reunited with a mother who abandoned them as children (restored in 4K resolution)

Feb. 16-21 Kind Hearts and Coronets, a 1949 British black comedy (restored in 4K resolution)

Feb. 22 Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and Yellow Submarine (1968), a re-screening of the first two films to play at the theater 50 years ago

For the full schedule of showings, go to cinestudio.org

This article appeared in the February 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.