Ever since he was eight years old, James Sears wanted to run a movie house. When he set up the North Charleston community website myparkcircle.com in 2008, an online survey revealed that regular movie screenings were a high priority for residents. Here was Sears' chance. With a small group of like-minded locals, he set up The Greater Park Circle Film Society.
"Our mission is to show great films," says Sears, "engage the community, promote filmmakers and the art of film while introducing new people to Park Circle." His personal goals — other than fulfilling a childhood dream — are to "help with film education and contribute to the improvement of the community."
It hasn't always been easy to screen classics, independent projects, and documentaries without a cinema. For its first year or so, the Society has used the South of Broadway Theatre on East Montague Avenue, with a portable screen on the stage and cabaret-style seating. Although the theater company has welcomed the "Olde North Charleston Picture House" with open arms, if a play is running on a Saturday night then there can be no screening. Seeking more than a bimonthly schedule, the Society is preparing to move to a new city-owned location in early March.
"We'll be showing films every Saturday night at 7 p.m.," confirms Sears, an affable, shrewdly intelligent broker and realtor with his own local business. "That way, if people plan evening activities such as getting something to eat, they'll always know that at 7, a film will be on."
The Society's new location at 4820 Jenkins Avenue was home to the Charleston Area Model Railroad Club until the city ended its lease at the beginning of 2009. The club is now in Citadel Mall, West Ashley. North Charleston Cultural Arts Director Marty Besancon is working with other municipal departments to clear out the club's O-Gauge leftovers and make sure it's inhabitable for a wide array of art and civic groups.
"It's a 2,000-square-foot, open floor-plan building," Besancon says. "It's just a big room in a nice location." Classes, performances, and meetings are being considered for the space, but on Saturday nights the lights will go down and a popcorn machine will crank up.
Smaller buildings like The Meeting Place on East Montague are presently in use. "The City can no longer really accommodate all that folks want to do," says Sears, "which is exciting." Ultimately, Besancon would like to see the Jenkins Avenue building revamped, although she says there's no timeline for this. "I don't think it would be this year. But lots of folks want to be over there in that wonderful area. We're definitely running out of space and we want to be able to accommodate growth."
The Film Society embodies that growth with its increased membership, new equipment, and ties with local organizations. This year the Society will continue its collaboration with the Carolina Film Alliance, Trident Technical College, and Nickelodeon Theatre in Columbia, South Carolina's only other nonprofit movie house. In March, Lowcountry Local First will be involved in a screening and discussion of The Real Dirt on Farmer John. Later in the year, the Society will partner with The Mill to show monthly cult classic films in the bar's rear patio area.
When Sears says that weekly screenings at the new venue "will happen," he has the stubbornness of the eight-year-old who imagined showing movies in the first place. There's nothing wrong with that. Along with his fellow cinephiles, Sears is a good example of the contribution strong-minded, committed individuals can make to their community.