After about 18 months of planning including four months of construction, the Hippodrome Cinema is back.
Despite the intense September heat, around 35 attendees gathered at the Hippodrome Theatre at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday for the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the return of the Hippodrome Cinema after its renovations. The theater was filled with employees and attending talking, admiring the artwork on the walls, enjoying drinks and viewing the new cinema.
The Hippodrome closed its cinema in April for remodeling. That same month, the Hippodrome celebrated its 50th anniversary.
The cinema had a soft opening on Aug. 18 with a screening of South Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s heartbreaking 2023 drama, “Past Lives,” followed by South Korean film director Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary.
The cinema primarily focuses on foreign, independent and art house films. This gives Gainesville residents an opportunity to revisit classics and watch films that traditional movie theaters don’t always offer. Regular tickets are $12, and senior and student tickets are $10.
Bob Robins serves in multiple roles at The Hippodrome. He is the production manager, facility manager and lighting designer for all the mainstage plays. He served as the facility manager during the renovation.
The historic 1911 building that houses the theater was originally the post office in Gainesville, he said. The current cinema is where the mail sorting room used to be and the federal courtroom was upstairs where the main stage is, he said.
“It was really built as a community access building, law and post office, and then when The Hippodrome came downtown, we just expanded that into the arts,” Robins said.
The renovations were designed to honor the historical aspects of the building while also modernizing it. In the cinema, geometric lines were added to bolster the lines of the art of the original architect of the building, Robins said.
Another aspect of the building’s history was that much of it was handmade, so not everything was perfectly symmetrical or squared, he said. However, the construction team was able to make it all work to complete the renovation
The renovation project, which cost approximately $335,000 and was paid for through the Wild Places & Public Spaces sales tax, included new light fixtures, new paint, carpet, a new movie screen, and acoustic wall panels. The project also included upgrades to the first- and second-floor restrooms.
The cinema seats were also replaced. The Hippodrome donated its old seats to several different places, including schools that are starting up their own film programs and have screening rooms, he said.
Other theaters in town have found it difficult to stay open, and they have had to reduce staff or close. But the Hippodrome is running its 51st season this year.
“So many theaters are going down right now and we’re not,” Robins said. “We’re here, and I think that’s a testament to the citizens of Gainesville and Alachua County in North Central Florida. They want to keep this building providing services for them.”
One reason for the Hippodrome Cinema’s success is that it is primarily a small theater with other aspects of business, like its live theater and other community events. That’s how the Hippodrome can afford to screen different films than those shown at a traditional movie theater.
Michael Curry, the president of the board of directors at The Hippodrome, has worked at the theater for about 35 years. He said he recognizes that because of this economic model, The Hippodrome can run movies that have won awards and are more artistic but may not have an audience that would justify a traditional theater showing it, he said.
“Occasionally, we get a film that people will go ‘Wow, they’ve got that at The Hippodrome?’ and it’s because it might have won 15 awards at Cannes, but it’s never going to be a wide, broad draw in terms of box office,” Curry said.
Amie Thompson, who works in development and marketing at The Hippodrome, said she sees The Hippodrome as a great place for people with like-minded interests to get together, she said.
“It’s nice to have a smaller hole-in-the-wall kind of a place to go that still feels like it’s professional, still feels like it’s a worthwhile place to go,” she said.
People are excited for the cinema’s event called Cocktails and Classics, which is about to come back, Thompson said. At Cocktails and Classics, people can purchase a drink to take into the cinema with them as they watch an old film together. Classic films are one of the Hippodrome cinema’s biggest niche, along with foreign films, she added.
Some of those niche films are not available on streaming, so being able to watch them in a cinema can appeal to viewers. Additionally, movie theaters appeal to those who see cinema as a communal experience. After the pandemic, people’s desire to see each other has grown, Thompson said.
“After COVID we started to crave community more,” Thompson said. “I think this place kind of works out. I think everyone here loves art, loves theater, loves all we do here.”
Thompson, who is new to Florida, said working at The Hippodrome has allowed her to find a community of people who like film and theater as much as she does. The screening of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” was a highlight for her, as she loves going to the theater for spooky movies, she said.
Throughout September, the Hippodrome Cinema will be showing “Close to Vermeer,” “Mutt,” “It Lives Inside” and the National Theatre Live “Jack Absolute.” Tickets can be purchased on The Hippodrome’s website.