SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Billy Schmidt, owner and operator of the Chautauqua Cinema, will deliver a Chautauqua Speaks presentation at 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club House.
Ever since he was a kid growing up in Chautauqua County, Billy Schmidt has been behind the movie screen, up in the balcony, inside the film booth and back in the little-known, popcorn-popping room at Chautauqua Cinema.
Schmidt is the third in his family to own and manage Chautauqua Cinema since 1956, following his late father, Paul, who succeeded his late grandfather, Robert. Taking over the family business wasn’t what he had in mind when he was attending Chautauqua High School, studying sound recording technology in college and building the Cinema’s screen stage with his father, he said.
For nearly 17 years, Schmidt went on tour with bands in the U.S. and abroad. He made San Francisco his year-round base. When the second of his two sons was born, however, he changed his mind about continuing the family tradition. His wife and father agreed.
At 9:15 a.m. tomorrow at the Chautauqua Women’s Club House, Schmidt will give the second talk of this season’s Chautauqua Speaks series titled “Chautauqua Goes to the Movies.”
With his seventh season as Cinema manager underway, Schmidt knows what he’s about. Since 2009, when his father retired, his family has spent summers in Chautauqua and Jamestown, and the school year in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco.
“I look forward to Chautauqua and the quiet of a less urban life, so much, so much,” Schmidt said. “What was invigorating 20 years ago — city life — is tiring now. Then by the end of the season I look forward to getting back to San Francisco.”
In California, Schmidt, an audio engineer, is a member of Local 16 of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts.
“I work quite a bit with the pit orchestra and upstairs audio mix for the San Francisco Ballet, which shares the beautiful War Memorial Opera House,” he said. “It’s really buzzing. I also work all over town, including at the Convention Center.”
At Chautauqua Cinema, each Schmidt generation has kept current with technical and technological change. A sign posted on the door to the film room reads: “NO NITROCELLULOSE FILM SHALL BE USED IN THIS BOOTH.”
On Schmidt’s watch, color digital cinematography has superseded film. By 2013, conversion to digital was imperative, as major studios were beginning to entirely eliminate 35mm film, yet the high cost seemed prohibitive.
Schmidt said that his father suggested that they raise the funding necessary for the conversion — more than $70,000 — by offering lifetime movie ticket admissions for $2,000 and lifetime popcorn for $500. Donors of any amount would receive a T-shirt.
“Since Chautauqua Cinema is a commercial business, we couldn’t create a board and give people the nonprofit donation option,” Schmidt said.
By the end of last season, Schmidt’s 13-month fundraising effort had reached its goal.
“We went with American Cinema Equipment in Portland, Oregon,” Schmidt said. “I’m a technician in a lot of other ways, so I get them on the phone or by computer. It’s all digital technology, so we can work on troubleshooting together.”
Although the Cinema is fully digitized, it has also retained its film capability.
“With the conversion I really wanted to retain 35mm functionality,“ Schmidt said. “I love old machines and had the equipment.”
Dual functionality has enabled Schmidt to continue showing the 35mm print of “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” to all the kids at the Children’s School. “I invite them every year,” he said. “It’s just the right length — 22 minutes — and the heads and tails run through it so they can see the count down. No one uses film emulsions for anything any more.”
Because it is far easier to reproduce digital files, high-security measures are taken at every step. “Film was intrinsically secure because making copies was so hard,” Schmidt said. “The digital path is never unencrypted.”
Nevertheless, Schmidt said, programming and promotion are the biggest challenges.
“I have to make these decisions and live with them: what are we going to show, and when, and how?” he said. “I don’t want to run a film about a famous symphony at the same time the Chautauqua Symphony is performing.”
In choosing films for his Meet the Filmmaker Series, Schmidt confers with Sherra Babcock, Chautauqua Institution vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, and Associate Director for Education and Youth Services Matt Ewalt.
For the Wednesday Chautauqua Classic Film Series, he works with David Zinman, the author of 50 Classic Motion Pictures. Zinman lectures before each film and leads a discussion with the audience afterwards. The 1998 film, “The Horse Whisperer,” which Schmidt said is only available in 35mm film, will be shown Week Five.
Schmidt said he previews the films for these special series and tries to see all the feature films.
“I get some because I want to see them, and I have a movie theater, so I can do that,” he said.