As multiplex movie theaters have opened in recent years in or near Charlottesville, the city’s smaller cinemas have shut down, most notably Vinegar Hill Theatre in 2013, after a 37-year run. But the closing of Charlottesville’s first independent cinema does not mark the end of arthouse films on local big screens. OFFScreen, a film series run by UVA students, draws viewers to Grounds to catch offbeat films in Newcomb Hall Theater.
OFFScreen began in the fall of 1998 as an independent, classic and foreign film exhibitor at the University. It is a Contracted Independent Organization at UVA and its seven-person executive board and most of its 33 additional members are students. But the program has a strong Charlottesville following; audience size ranges from 30 to 200 at OFFScreen’s biweekly screenings, and the crowd is a mix of students and community members. All films are open to the public and tickets cost $2.
The group’s members discuss the films after the screenings. Some nights these meetings are organized presentations, while others are casual conversations about plot points, cinematic techniques or general impressions.
“I liked the thought of having a group of like-minded people who were interested in films that were unique and not necessarily immediately available,” says Christine Heubusch (Col ’16), the current president of OFFScreen. “I also liked the idea of watching films with people who can assess film on a different level, in terms of cinematography and sound and all of those elements.”
The Oakton, Virginia, media studies major signed up for OFFScreen in the second semester of her first year. She left early from the first movie she saw, the 1998 Todd Solondz film Happiness, which made headlines for boldly tackling contemporary issues. “I thought it was too edgy for me,” Heubusch says. But she was intrigued. “I thought OFFScreen offered something that I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
So did Sam Moore (Engr ’16), from Stafford, Virginia, who spent much of his teenage years indoors, often watching several movies a day. The computer science major says that watching the 1972 Francis Ford Coppola classic The Godfather led him on a film binge. When he saw his first foreign film, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he was struck. “I saw there was a whole new world of film,” Moore says.
Heubusch thinks OFFScreen’s lasting success is due to the simple fact that it screens films that are not readily available at multiplexes. Some of OFFScreen’s best-attended films from the past year included Boyhood, Palo Alto, Whiplash, Obvious Child, Inherent Vice, Frances Ha and Birdman. In the spring, the group will increase its collaboration with OpenGrounds, a networking and innovation space on the Corner, with professor-led discussions on Saturday nights. “We are aiming to expand the discussion component of our organization,” Heubusch says.
And that is part of what draws students and community members to the basement of Newcomb Hall every two weeks—the pure pleasure that comes from sitting with a group of thoughtful individuals to watch and think about films.
“OFFScreen is cool because you’ll get all these people who don’t know each other into this one room to see this movie,” Moore says. “It’s a great thing.”