Joy Ennis thought it might be fun to book the 1954 classic “White Christmas” into the Cary Theater, and turn it into a participatory event which would include an audience singalong, fake snow and Xmas bells. When the program sold out two shows, and the audience totally got into the mood of the thing – think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” participation, but with a G-rated holiday flick – Ennis knew she was onto something.
“I was standing in the projection booth,” says Ennis, who was in her first year as the theater’s program director, “and I just burst into tears, and my husband said ‘What’s wrong?’ And I said ‘They love it.’ This is why I want to do this job, because when it comes together and it’s something special like that, it’s magic.”
And really, who would have thought that a Chapel Hill grad with absolutely no experience in film booking or distribution would have, in just three years, turned The Cary into not just the only repertory house in the area, but a place which features interesting programming almost every week?
You want zombies? The Cary recently featured an outdoor “Zombiepalooza” with short films by local filmmakers, followed by the classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Fashion more your thing? Ennis booked a documentary about the House of Dior, followed by a lecture from N.C. State art and design professor and “Project Runway” finalist Justin LeBlanc. How about homages to recently deceased directors? The Cary’s “Gone But Not Forgotten” series continues on Nov. 20 with Arthur Hiller’s “Love Story,” and finishes on Nov. 27 with Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential.”
“How do you tap into that need to go to the theater?” says Ennis of her programming. “Theater has to always be just a little bit more than the film.”
Ennis was an advertising major in college, then worked for years for Oxford University Press in editorial and marketing. After starting a children’s choir in Cary, she was offered a part-time gig by the town, and soon moved up to a full-time position managing Cary’s arts festivals and special events. When the renovated Cary Theater opened, she took the challenge and became its events programmer. Not that she knew anything about the film biz.
“The first year, learning about film distribution, was a very steep learning curve,” she says. Things began to turn around when Ennis heard about the Art House Convergence, a national group of art house theaters that holds a conference every year in Utah, the week before the Sundance Film Festival. “I convinced the town to send me there, and it was like finding the Rosetta Stone,” says Ennis. “I wrote as hard and fast as I could for four days, and once I came back, I was able to formulate the vision of where we needed to go in terms of film.”
When we lost the Galaxy Theater here in Cary, there was really a void that was left, and I’m trying to fill that void.
Joy Ennis, program director for The Cary
Initially, though, it was throw it up on the screen and see what sticks. What didn’t: “I’m Still Here,” Joaquin Phoenix’s faux documentary about his plans to become a hip-hop artist. “Every single person who came walked out,” says Ennis. “I programmed it because it was a little more edgy, and I learned that I needed to be more strategic about my edginess.”
Ennis was learning the first lesson of programming. According to Lawren Desai, curator of the successful four-screen a/perture cinema in Winston-Salem, that means “talking to the community, and what is their potential to come and support you. You need an audience that will take a chance on the films you play, and try new things.”
In her third year at the helm, Ennis is still working on audience building, but she has come up with a monthly template that seems to be working. Thursdays and Sundays are always for film, Fridays and Saturdays can vary with live performances. She tries to book repertory cinema or classics, and some new indies. There’s a children’s series that runs every other Tuesday, and Ennis wants to start programming films for seniors on Thursday afternoons, with newer indie films like “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” which was a huge hit for the theater. “Then I follow my nose,” says Ennis. “I know it sounds crazy, but it has to feel right.”
Ennis has a programming committee that she uses for input, and is always open to suggestions from the public and staff members. She keeps the town government informed of what she’s doing. She’d like to book more foreign-language films, and even though she has few budgetary restrictions, booking first-run films might be too expensive, considering the staffing issues and equipment upgrades it would entail.
“It’s been kind of an organic thing to come to where we are now,” says Ennis, “and I think it’s always going to be changing. When we lost the Galaxy Theater here in Cary, there was really a void that was left, and I’m trying to fill that void.”
Coming up at The Cary Theater
December Film Highlights
Dec. 11: “Joyeaux Noel,” the Oscar-nominated 2005 foreign film about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western front
Dec. 15 and 23: “It’s A Wonderful Life.
Dec. 16-18: “White Christmas” singalong.
Dec. 29-31: “The Vessel,” a new film starring Martin Sheen about a small town 10 years after a tsunami has hit.
Dec. 31: “King Kong vs. Godzilla
The Cary Theater is at 122 E. Chatham St., Cary
Info: thecarytheater.com or call 919-462-2051