The Waters Edge Cinema in Whalers Wharf is the only movie theater in Provincetown and, with Wellfleet Cinemas, one of only two on the Outer Cape. But the Waters Edge, like thousands of cinemas across the country, is reckoning with changes in the industry that threaten its sustainability.
Even as it has changed hands and names, the cinema on Commercial Street has been a year-round source of entertainment for most of the last century. Whalers Wharf was opened in 1919 as a 600-seat movie theater. In 1973, David Elmer turned most of the old theater into studio spaces and a craft market but maintained a small cinema on the second floor known simply as “The Movies.” The cinema was closed and converted to storage space in the 1980s.
In 1998, a catastrophic fire destroyed the old Whalers Wharf. The building was replaced with the current structure, including a second-floor theater that was named “New Art Cinema 3.” In April 2010, the theater was purchased by the Provincetown Film Society, the nonprofit that organizes the annual Provincetown International Film Festival, and given its current name after a 2012 renovation.
Last month about 30 people came to Waters Edge for the Film Society’s “town hall” — billed as a chance to hear from the community what programs, events, and types of screenings they would like to see in the future at the cinema. Sitting up front were the society’s Executive Director Anne Hubbell, treasurer Kevin Moss, and clerk Michael Colford. Hubbell explained that the society supports the cinema, adding, “Nobody’s getting rich off the movie theater business.”
Over the next hour and a half, Moss asked for reactions to possible programing at the theater, from first-run major studio films to short films to live sporting events and “theme nights.” Responses were mixed, but the consensus favored first-run major studio films and classic movies as well as community-centered events and showings.
Moss’s query about a possible redesign of the theater elicited a cacophony of complaints about the uncomfortableness of the chairs, the low quality of the sound system, and the theater’s inaccessibility. Lise Balk King, a local film professional, said later that people prefer not to come to Waters Edge “because it’s uncomfortable.” She believes a campaign to renovate the cinema would get community support.
After the gathering, Hubbell said that she had heard loud and clear the importance of creating a “comfortable place with great projection and sound.” She said the society is in the “hypothetical to early stages” of considering a possible renovation that would rely on a capital campaign seeking funds from individual donors and governmental grants.
“The cinema does not break even,” Hubbell responded to a question about finances. “We have to have donations and grants and community support.” Moss added that such an economic model “is very consistent with how nonprofit cinemas run across the country.”
Film Society officials would not provide figures for the cost of operating Waters Edge. Publicly available tax returns, however, show that in 2021 the Film Society had $910,000 in revenue and $734,000 in expenses. The cinema produced only $75,165 of that revenue, compared to $606,401 in government grants and individual contributions. Ticket sales in 2021 were down from $177,965 in 2019 and $203,076 in 2018.
Despite this decrease, Hubbell said there are no plans at present to close the cinema. Vanessa Downing, the managing director of the society, said that the town hall was not about telling the community that “we’re in a crisis” but rather that “we’re at a crossroads” with the shifting state of cinema broadly and the changing demographics and economics of Provincetown. The concern, said Downing, is less how to stay afloat and more how to ensure that the cinema remains “relevant and is meeting the mission of building community through film.”
Waters Edge is propped up by the Film Society. But the New York Times reported in September that, despite this summer’s double-blockbuster dubbed “Barbenheimer,” cinemas across America have been pushed to the brink by streaming and the pandemic. About 500 screens have gone dark since 2020, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.
Howard Karren, who is a member of the Film Society’s advisory board and curator of the Film Art Series at Waters Edge, said that the “whole ‘Barbenheimer’ thing distracted people from the fact that theatrical movies across the country are in a real downward slide.” Karren, who is the Independent’s film critic, says he thinks the society bought the cinema believing it would be a source of income but it “turned out to be something of an albatross” that has always lost money.
To Karren, the town hall was a step in the right direction because the future of local cinemas across the country requires dialogue with the community. Small towns, he said, are the most susceptible to cinema closures, and Provincetown will have to understand that the cinema is not a money-making venture and will need community support to exist.
Scott Sanders, the Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-winning producer and Provincetown resident, attended the town hall because he believes Provincetown needs to have a thriving cinema. “This community thrives on culture,” he said, “and it should have every piece of culture available to it.”
The Film Society intends to keep the doors of Waters Edge open through the winter. But it will take the community’s support to keep those doors open year after year.