After five years, The Nightlight still celebrates ‘the magic of cinema’

by Conor Battles

The Nightlight Cinema in Akron celebrated its fifth year of operation this summer. For Brittany Dobish, running the city’s only arthouse theater is about preserving a cinema culture that is unlike what any 24-screen megaplex has to offer.

“I love my job, it’s a dream,” Brittany says. “Curating this beautiful arthouse cinema, bringing so much joy to people. I want people to come and enjoy the experience of the Nightlight.”

Brittany has been a part of the Nightlight for three years, serving as Artistic Director, programmer, and currently interim Executive Director of the theater. In that time, she has observed an increased passion for independent cinema, both here in Akron and around the world. 

“People are just so enthralled to have someone bring back a memory of their childhood, or a film that they don’t really get a chance to see in any other manner,” Brittany says. “We had a [Swedish filmmaker Ingmar] Bergman retrospective last year. I couldn’t picture [Bergman’s films] any other way than among peers who love the cinema like I do, or people who’ve never seen it before, experiencing it the way the filmmaker intended.”

Movie theaters, especially independently run arthouses like the Nightlight, face a unique challenge in today’s entertainment landscape. The film industry at large dedicates most of its resources towards streaming services and big-budget franchise films, forcing smaller theaters to think outside the box when it comes to selling tickets and finding patrons. 

The Nightlight partners with Art House Convergence, a nonprofit coalition of independent theaters, museums, film festivals and other venues across the world dedicated to preserving community-driven media exhibition. The coalition believes that modern independent theaters survive not by competing with one another, but by banding together to sustain appreciation for the art of film and the moviegoing experience.

“I love my house, I love being at home,” Brittany says. “But cinema began as this moment of contemplation, where you don’t have distractions. What’s beautiful about the Nightlight is, it’s small, it’s intimate, and we have those kinds of interactions.”

The Nightlight’s role in the Akron community is central to their mission. The theater boasts a network of more than 300 members, most of whom are Akron locals, whose donations help keep the theater running smoothly. Local businesses run ads before each screening as part of their corporate sponsorship program. Their concessions, which include craft cocktails and pastries alongside more typical popcorn-and-candy fare, are largely sourced from local vendors. 

Earlier this year, the theater screened local filmmaker Kevin Naughton’s documentary Inside Akron’s Tent City, a sobering and poignant look at Akron’s homeless community and their efforts to self-organize, to an enraptured local audience, Brittany says.

“Even sitting as a patron myself with my audience, it’s unlike anything,” Brittany says. “And it encourages people to love their city more.”

November sees the premiere of a pair of arthouse hits for the Nighlight — Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a psychological horror film set in 19th-century Maine starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, and Parasite, filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comic South Korean thriller, considered a frontrunner for this year’s Best Foreign Picture award at the Oscars. 

Films like The Lighthouse and Parasite strike a much-desired balance of arthouse chic and mass appeal for theaters like the Nightlight. The unorthodox success of films like these are a boon to cinephiles and arthouse theaters alike, as they suggest a future for cinema outside of the blockbuster franchises currently dominating the box office.

“Cinema is more broad than it ever has been,” Brittany says. “And without the Nightlight in Akron, none of these films could be shown [here].”

The future of the Nightlight is bright, Brittany says. A recent donation drive coinciding with their anniversary secured more than $15,000 in funding for the theater, which will be put toward a variety of expansion projects currently being explored for the years ahead.

“A lot of hearsay has gone on about a movie theater’s ability to survive,” Brittany says. “The magic of cinema, the beauty of seeing it on a big screen, is connection-building. And if I could create that for people, then my purpose in life has been fulfilled.”

Conor Battles is a journalism student at Kent State University.