December 13, 2022
'Science on Screen': How the Coolidge Corner Theatre combines entertainment and enlightenment
"I think one of the great things about it is we're not showing traditional science movies all the time." - BETH GILLIGAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE
The beloved Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline has been serving audiences since 1933. In those 89 years, moviegoers have laughed, cried and fallen in love in those seats — so much so that it's widely regarded as one of New England's most treasured landmarks.
But the Coolidge is more than just a movie theater. It's home to a variety of renowned original signature programs, like the wildly popular "Science on Screen," launched in 2005, which pairs screenings of classic cult science fiction and documentary films with fascinating presentations from science and technology experts. Whether it's the function of the amygdala in the zombie brains of "Night of the Living Dead" to how far epidemiology has come since "The Andromeda Strain," audiences leave the Coolidge with enhanced film and scientific literacy.
Beth Gilligan, deputy director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre, joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the theater's interesting — and sometimes unconventional — pairings. This transcript has been edited lightly.
Arun Rath: So this program has been going on for a while. Do you remember what the original impetus for it was?
Beth Gilligan: The "Science on Screen" program started at the Coolidge Corner Theatre back in 2005, which was before my time there. I joined the theater in 2009. It started when a man named Richard Anders, who's a local entrepreneur and investor, approached the theater staff about creating the series. I think the idea was that Boston has so much incredible scientific talent. It was a great way to tap in to that community and also to educate the general public about science and technology. In 2011, we started the national expansion of the series with support from the Alfred Sloan Foundation. So we actually re-granted to art house cinemas throughout the country, and it's grown tremendously. But it did start with that original idea back in 2005.
Rath: And at this point, with everything that you talked about, especially since 2011, it's pretty much an institution, isn't it?
Gilligan: It is, yeah. We're really proud. We've been able to distribute over 350 grants to 108 cinemas nationwide. We've been in 42 states. We have new grantees this year in Oxford, Mississippi, Fort Lauderdale, Taos, New Mexico. And the basic idea is that we received funding from the Alfred Sloan Foundation, and in turn, we award grants to different communities so they can start and sustain their own "Science on Screen" programs.
I think the beauty of this series is, I mean, in Boston, we're so fortunate. We have Nobel Laureates down the street. But I think there's also super talented high school chemistry teachers who might be able to give a really fascinating presentation. There's so much local talent in different communities throughout the U.S. and to be able to tap into that in a way that's fun and accessible, we just love how much it's grown and to see different theaters making it their own.
Rath: What have been some of the more interesting screenings and guests that some of the other theaters have put on?
Gilligan: Oh gosh, there are so many. I mean, it's really funny. There was a theater in Scottsbluff, Nebraska that I remember. They had a screening of a documentary, the name of which is escaping me, but they brought in live reindeer to do a presentation. And I know at the Tampa Theater they did a screening around "Jaws" and had a local shark expert, and they had hands-on things going on in the lobby — there are things related to climate and the fires that have happened in California. So everybody's kind of adapting it to what's going on in their area, which is great.
Rath: What's your process at the Coolidge for choosing the films and the guest pairings?
Gilligan: You know, for a series about science, it's not scientific. It's kind of a combination of sometimes I'll read an article about somebody who's doing really interesting research. Other times, there'll just be a great film that I think would be amazing to see on the big screen, like "The Grapes of Wrath" is something I don't think we'd shown in a really long time. The cinematography is amazing. It's the 1940 film by John Ford, and I was like, well, is there a science angle there? And I thought, of course, drought. And we had the environmentalist Bill McKibben come and give an amazing talk before that screening. So sometimes it's recommendations from people about speakers, sometimes it's more topical. I know as the pandemic was becoming more and more of a headline in early 2020, we had somebody talking about disease, pandemics and infectious disease. Climate change has been a big topic lately. It really varies, but it's a very fun series to sort of go into different directions with.
I think one of the great things about it is we're not showing traditional science movies all the time. I think, you know, if we were to show a nature documentary or something about outer space, you're almost kind of preaching to the choir. And what we try to do is have these unexpected pairings, like you talked about the zombie brain, the amygdala with "Night of the Living Dead," or something like "Airplane" where we had an MIT aeronautics, an astrophysicist talking about self-piloting plane technology. We had somebody from MIT driverless introducing an outdoor screening of "Fast Five," which many consider to be the peak of the "Fast and Furious" series, and she talked about what the future might look like with driverless race cars. So you get kind of a more general audience, which I think is also really fun for the speakers because they're so used to, in many instances, speaking at academic conferences in front of their peers. A lot of them just love the opportunity to speak in front of a more general audience and invite their family and friends. So it's really fun to watch that.
Rath: That's awesome. The unconvential pairings really seem to bring out the most. I mean, it's honestly still sinking into me thinking about "The Grapes of Wrath" as a story of climate change refugees, which it really is. So tell us about some of the things you have that are coming up that you're most excited about.
Gilligan: Tonight, on Monday, December 12th, we have Dr. Grant Tremblay, who's an astrophysicist from Harvard, and he's going to give us an overview of the multiverse in relation to the film "Everything Everywhere All At Once," which was a great arthouse blockbuster this year. It's a really fun madcap, a really hard-to-describe film by the Daniels starring Michelle Yeoh. And it was one of our biggest hits this year at The Coolidge, and incredible, too. It really brought audiences back after we were closed from the pandemic for a long time. So just to be able to sort of give it a "Science on Screen" spin. We're seeing lots of ticket sales and lots of excitement around it.