Dedicatedly hosting screenings for recent and popular films is something that the Calvin Student Activities Office (SAO) has been doing since before 2006 — including showings that date back to “The Incredibles.” Prior to 2010 all of these screenings had been free to students, and up until 2013 they only cost one dollar. In the past couple of years, students had seen the price rise to two dollars. However, as of this past December, the SAO films have once again become free — and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.
The decision to make the screenings free came from Ken Heffner, Director of Student Activities, who said: “On average, we’re seeing a significant increase in attendance. If there are 250–400 students a night watching a movie, we’re happy. We were seeing it drop down to 50, 60 or 75 people when we were charging money. At that point the ticket revenue isn’t helping us anymore, and we’re left asking, what’s the point? If the ticket price is the reason we’re seeing low attendance, then we decided to get rid of it.”
SAO’s motivation to make screenings free was shaped by the hope that the films would be able to reach more students. Having worked tirelessly to create a venue in the CFAC auditorium that is on par with an A-list theater — boasting a top of the line projector, excellent surround sound and a large amount of seating space — Calvin SAO firmly believes this atmosphere for viewing films is far superior than one students would have elsewhere on campus. “People are now watching movies on their iPhone or laptop,” said Heffner. “This has become so attractive for students — all the streaming services make it very easy just to stay in your room and watch something off your dad’s Netflix account that you didn’t pay for on your medium size television. This is not a great communal experience — you’re not seeing the whole movie the way it was meant to be seen.”
The other major factor in making films free is the idea of promoting active discernment when viewing art. Calvin, being a liberal arts school, has often been vocal about its belief that the arts — including films and concerts — aren’t something to mindlessly view or listen to, but rather involve a spiritual practice in which the art is meant to be discussed or processed afterwards. SAO hands out playbills discussing the themes of the film before every showing, and also hosts discussions that students are encouraged to participate in afterwards. Heffner said: “The intention is you’ll do the discernment practice everywhere, at all times in the future. But you don’t learn to do that except by practicing — and while we provide a laboratory to do that, it gets lost if everyone’s watching it on little screens wherever they are. They aren’t getting that part of the experience either.”
“I’ve been going to a lot more of the movies ever since they made them free,” said Liam Lichti, a junior. “I saw ‘Moana’ last night and it was tons of fun. The first night they offered a free movie there was a lot of people that showed up and it made it feel a lot more like a community experience than just watching a movie by yourself, and that was a big draw. Watching something at home isn’t the same — the big screen and auditorium setting makes it more intense and more fun.”
Calvin SAO has committed to making all of their film screenings free for the rest of the semester, with hopes to continue into next year as well. With each free screening also comes the promise of free root beer for its attendees — another factor Ken hopes will motivate students to come. “[We’ll do] whatever it takes to get you in this room, because we want you there,” said Heffner. “Once you enter the room, you’ve joined another community, and so you have a joint experience that turns into discussion or conversation afterwards. When Calvin students are all sitting in a room watching something, it’s a connection.”
SAO has always chosen recent and relevant films to show on campus. This upcoming weekend, SAO is holding a screening of “La La Land” on Friday night at 8 p.m. in the CFAC Auditorium. The following week “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is being shown on both Thursday and Friday night. Films such as “Lego Batman” and “Moonlight” will be shown later on in the semester.