In Milan, in the NoLo area, there is a cinema that was created for those who really love the big screen: a room "like those of the past", where the programming is designed regardless of fashions and blockbusters.
A project that goes against the grain but, with the competition from streaming services and films with a strong marketing push, it works. What is his secret? We asked Paola Corti who, with Monica Nardi, was the creator and is still the co-curator of the programming of the Cinema Beltrade, transformed from a parish cinema to case studies.
What was cinema before your arrival?
Paola Corti: "The Cinema Beltrade has been around since the 1940s a parish cinema, with ups and downs. For a short period it was also the home of the Cineteca Italiana.
Its proximity to what was once the 'cinema street' (via Soperga) meant that it was used for a period for press previews.
In 2011 Andrea, one of the volunteers who took care of the Beltrade Cinema, together with Don Marco, a priest of the parish, called me and Monica to get some advice: they were worried about the fate of the cinema and we had collaborated to some events organized at the Beltrade Cinema, at that time entrusted to a group of volunteers who offered one film club per week.
We recommended a tender to finance a relaunch and purchase of the DCP projector in view of the transition to the complete digitalisation of distribution and cinemas. The presentation of the tender was not successful and in 2012 those volunteers asked us to propose it and, if successful, to take care of the programming and management of the cinema.
We won the tender and for three-four years we shared burdens and honors, expenses and profits with the parish."
What was the change of pace that led Cinema Beltrade to be what it is today?
Paola Corti: "First of all, both Monica and I dedicated ourselves body and soul to the project, keeping the cinema open practically alone, while the other colleagues of our company (Barz and Hippo) followed the other theaters for which we are responsible,in Rho and Cologno Monzese. As for the curation strategy, we first intensified the programming without distorting it and then carried out radical changes .
It was the first time we could manage a cinema in Milan: a unique opportunity to imagine something new, show films that were difficult to propose elsewhere and do it exclusively in the original version. We wanted to create a cinema 'like the old days', something not very urban despite being in the city, and so little by little we arrived at multiprogramming: the scheduled titles that rotate and they become available at different times each time."
What was the public reaction?
Paola Corti: "People in the industry told us that we would close in a flash and that no one would come to that cinema so out of the way. Instead, Cinema Beltrade immediately started to grow.
Once the tender period was over, we agreed with the parish priest at the time for a business rental contract, which still lasts today. The parish therefore owns the walls and has never interfered with our programming and our work."
Have you wondered what the secret to your model's success is?
Paola Corti: "The VOS (original subtitled version, ed.) dissatisfies many people who don't like reading subtitles. But Milan is large, and the 'minority' that prefers it is widespread, particularly among young people who are accustomed to this practice.
Multi-programming allows us to offer a very rich offering and to give films a long life. The rotating schedules give the possibility of seeing each film at different times, satisfying all needs.
In the morning and afternoon there are few spectators (but they are growing), but offering those shows is part of an idea of openness as a service , which is as prolonged as possible.
At the beginning, the Beltrade Cinema attracted an audience stimulated by the selection of films that were not possible to see elsewhere: documentaries, independent works perhaps presented by the directors and cast. Little by little this hard core grew and generated word of mouth.
There are many things we have done because we liked them first and foremost and which, evidently, found people ready to appreciate them. Some retrospectives/marathons have made us known to younger people (such as those dedicated to Xavier Dolan, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Gaspar Noé)".
At the Beltrade Cinema you can breathe a different atmosphere. How did you design it?
Paola Corti: "We tried to be little 'citizen' in the reception methods, maintaining a low profile which perhaps is more suited to a village hall strong>.
People arrive and find a familiar environment, we treat them in a very direct way (for better and sometimes even for worse), we talk to them about films but not only that: we have always told them what we were doing and why.
We dedicate a lot of time to communication, both oral and on social media, the website and the newsletter.
And we are very not formal, we have always made do with little, immediately proposing meetings via Skype with the directors when having them in the room was difficult or too expensive, without using expensive interpreters professionals and yet always doing quite well. Ours is truly a cinema 'like it used to be'.
Until recently we had no online pre-sale or air conditioning, but we offered the possibility of booking via email (responding to each one individually) and provided fans and fans for the hottest days. But there is no compromise on certain aspects, such as VOS, the quality of the projection and the audio and the darkness in the room until the end of the last title.
We tried to create a space with its own atmosphere, where you feel that the important thing is the projection: a space and time 'apart', a moment of suspension entirely dedicated to the film.
Precisely to intensify this perception we painted the false ceilings and every possible element red, and introduced during the lockdown a curtain also red which opens and closes at the beginning of each film, on which we project animations that invite silence and enjoy the film. We then proposed the formula of daytime and nighttime marathons, continued to organize evenings with guests live or via video connection, and resisted the screening of 'special contents' that didn't excite us".
Who is your audience?
Paola Corti: "People who are passionate about cinema come to us: this has allowed us to resist the closures due to Covid and the subsequent restrictions very well. Even during the lockdowns we have always maintained contact in various ways with the spectators, promising them that we would reopen as soon as we had the chance.
And so we did, opening at dawn on the first possible day with a marathon. At the first show (at 6 am) it was full, and this also attracted the attention of the media.
We require a lot of attention from spectators (they have to navigate the rotating schedules, follow precise rules when booking...), but we also try to give back just as much, and to always explain why we make a choice. And we involved them in our activities, especially in the awareness campaigns during and after the lockdown.
How did Cinema Beltrade's programming come about?
Paola Corti: "Our proposal is currently very rich and varied (there is no real 'editorial line'), we can really do what we set out to do from the beginning, that is, create a balance between the films that are better known and gross more, and works that are less well known but which in our opinion deserve to remain in theaters for a while. And we always try to have the directors tell what's behind the film, rather than critics who have their say.
In the end, what matters are the films; we have been able to propose many independent ones and, little by little, we have gained a position that allows us to also have non-independent ones in multi-programming.
Did the success of the NoLo neighborhood lead to that of the Beltrade Cinema or vice versa?
Paola Corti: "We think we have contributed to the explosion of the neighborhood and, in spite of ourselves, to its gentrification. It is clear that having many young people around the clubs in the area represents an advantage for us too."
What was the event that made you realize you were on the right path and what were the most successful screenings?
Paola Corti: "At the beginning we simply said to ourselves 'let's try to put on an unknown film that we like and see what happens'. It was a documentary on the Swiss detention centers for irregular immigrants, entitled Vol spécial.
More or less the same people came who would have participated if we had screened the usual 'big film' known but already squeezed out of the other city theaters. It was a good result.
Then we proposed a series of self-distributed films or by small distributors, which had a good response, including The Legend of Kaspar Hauser, < em>Arrugas – Wrinkles,The Parade – Lasfilata, In search of Vivian Maier, Holy Motors.
And we received many gifts, especially from graphic designers and illustrators: the graphic design studio La Tigre remade our identity; the collective group of GSM graphic designers and illustrators gave us around 50 posters with the phrase "see you at Beltrade"; Domenico Demonte, after having collaborated with us for some screenings and exhibitions, continues to give us very beautiful graphics from time to time for various marathons.
Receiving these and other gifts really made us feel like we were doing something worthwhile."
How is the cinema space changing?
Paola Corti: "Despite being a much loved cinema, there were those among the spectators who complained of some discomfort: for example the arrangement of the seats sometimes made it difficult to read the subtitles, or the lack of air conditioning.
Now we have raised the screen a little, so that reading the subtitles is easier. We have completely redone the ventilation system with a new air machine and a heat pump, ensuring optimal conditions in all seasons, always trying to be very careful not to cool too much: the < strong>We still don't like air conditioning, both because it consumes a lot and because many people suffer from it, so we don't abuse it.
During the summer we carried out other works which improved the aesthetic appearance of the room and the acoustics; we renovated the bathrooms, doubling them in number and completely changing the lighting system, replacing the light bulbs with LED spotlights.
The overall investment was over 200,000 euros, but we were also able to face it thanks to the partial coverage offered by the contribution of the PNRR Next Generation EU".
Speaking of the future: how do you see the future of cinema?
Paola Corti: "The large platforms pose problems on a global level, the cinema system certainly has weak points and the production and distribution strategies can at certain times generate a of apprehension.
But those who love cinema still want to see it in theaters. The room is a different thing. Ours is a different profession.
There is a big difference between offering hundreds of choices - governed by an algorithm - for home viewing, and offering a limited number of newly released or fished out according to a criteria films, to be seen in theaters in optimal conditions, alone and with other people, and with the possibility of meeting the directors and other guests and delving deeper into both the films and the themes they deal with".