After children’s festival, restored Roxy’s first picture show will be a while

Twenty-four hours before the Philadelphia Film Society opens the Roxy Theater on Sansom Street in Philadelphia for a weekend-long Children’s Film Festival, workers were drilling light fixtures and painting walls. They were literally racing the clock.

“A lot of what’s happening now is cosmetic,” said Rebecca Cain, development director for the film society. “It’s a small space. Having 20 people working in a small space creates a lot of debris. We’re working on the debris part.”

The film society has worked for months on making the Roxy its new home, where it will program foreign and independent films year-round, and be ground zero for the annual International Film Festival. This weekend was supposed to be its grand opening. As it happens, the opening will be softer than that. As renovations of the old two-screen theater in Rittenhouse Square got under way, major problems emerged.

There were rotting roof beams under a leaky roof, brick support walls with no footing, and no compliance with rules for handling food or handicap accessibility.

The building created its own technical problems. Because space is really just two rowhomes connected (illegally, said Cain) by a door, the auditoriums inside are very long, and very narrow. Modern digital projectors could not throw an image that far, and make it land on a screen that small.

“It was like watching a movie in a bowling alley,” said Cain. “Digital doesn’t have the same flexibility as film. Had to move the booth further into the building. The seat count went from 140 to 85.”

The film society is rushing completion of the major problems to be able to host the children’s film festival this weekend. The theater then will go dark for several weeks as workers install acoustic panels, finish the concession stand, and prepare the facility to pass a battery of inspections. Regular, weekly programming will only then begin.

“Having a festival year-round in our own space will allow us to program movies not in the time frame of the 11-day festival,” said Cain. “We can bring wonderful films year-round. Films that would not be available at the Ritz. Ritz gets first choice, but there’s a lot else out there worth showing.”

Once fully restored, the Roxy will have new digital projectors to show current films as well as a reel-to-reel, two-projector system that can show old-school celluloid that still has little burn marks in the top right corner.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal