There’s going to the movies, and then there’s going to the ACME Screening Room in Lambertville.
The two are very different activities, because, in addition to seeing a film at the ACME Screening Room, the evening or afternoon might include an appearance by and talk with the filmmaker, a Q&A with the subjects of the movie, or even a meditation to spiritually connect with the film presented.
Now marking its 10th year on South Union Street, the ACME has a goal that goes way beyond just showing a movie. “It’s all about bringing people in the community together and creating a safe space to foster discussion of various issues and viewpoints,” says executive director Donna Muchnicki.
The theater, which seats 50 to 60 people, is an intimate place to see indie films, some that are really off the beaten track, as well as “bigger indies,” movies with an Oscar buzz, such as director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird.”
Launched in 2008, the ACME Screening Room is essentially a nonprofit weekly independent and documentary film series. Founded by Friends of Lambertville Library in partnership with the Lambertville Free Public Library and the City of Lambertville, it is housed in a former ACME supermarket.
Muchnicki, a New Hope resident, came on as executive director last February and she says it has been a whirlwind of a year.
“During our capital campaign we raised just under $60,000,” she says. “We began the improvements by bringing in all new seating. We then hired the Art of Sound, a high-end audio-visual design firm in Lambertville, to put together a new theater system including projector, screen, and sound. We recently completed the package with upgraded lighting, creating a state-of-the-art viewing experience for our small art house theater.”
ACME has also partnered with a new film exhibition company, something that helps the venue make the connections to bring in a variety of first-run independent movies.
Muchnicki says the theater is now “big enough for major talent in film, but small enough so that we can create these conversations that have an impact on the audience.”
Take, for example, last fall, when the ACME screened “Walk With Me,” the 2017 documentary focusing on a monastic community practicing the art of mindfulness with Zen Buddhist master and author Thich Nhat Hanh.
“For ‘Walk With Me,’ we had a seated meditation and then a walking meditation around Lambertville before the film — a very different kind of event,” Muchnicki says. “We enjoy having these kinds of events based around the movies. This way the people who come to see the films are enriched in a variety of ways.”
Muchnicki is already enthused about what ACME will have to offer in 2018. That includes the Saturday, January 20, documentary “What the Health,” filmmaker Kip Andersen’s explorations into the secrets of preventing chronic diseases, and why the nation’s leading health organizations don’t want people to know this information.
“For this film we’ll have nutritional health counselor Kim Kemper on hand to run a discussion and Q&A after the screening,” Muchnicki says. “Then on Sunday, January 28, we’ll have a playwrights group come in with writer/producer Chris Canaan doing a reading from his latest play, ‘Writer’s Block.’”
Incidentally, Canaan, with a long and notable roster of credits in film and television, recently moved from Los Angeles to Solebury Township, Pennsylvania, and will be teaching a course at Bucks County Playhouse later in 2018.
“In ways like this we’re creating conversations and building community,” Muchnicki says. “Another change is that we’re now partnering with different groups and organizations throughout the region, and that is helping us to grow and create a more diverse audience. These partnerships also open more opportunities for us to engage sponsors to help cover licensing and speaker fees. All of this allows us to present programming that opens us to new ideas and to possibly leave with new thoughts.”
“Hopefully these discussions will have a lasting impact on the audience members, and that’s a really big part of what I wanted to bring to ACME,” she says.
Since its inception the ACME Screening Room has also been a space for local and emerging filmmakers to show their works.
One such artist from the area is Hannah Jakubowski, whose documentary “Krampus: Daemon of Yule” screened in December at the ACME — just in time for the Winter Solstice.
“It was sold out when it screened,” Muchnicki says. “Hannah came and talked to the audience, even brought some Krampus masks that had been made in Austria. We love to give that opportunity for emerging filmmakers to bring and screen their films.”
“We also show environmental films, and for those occasions we’ve had environmentally oriented artists showing their art in the lobby,” she adds. “That’s the kind of engagement we like to do with these groups, and it opens things up and brings us a very different kind of audience.”
“PechaKucha” Lambertville/New Hope is something else unusual coming to the ACME on Friday, February 9. The word is Japanese for “chitchat” and the event, which combines local artistry with conversation, is happening worldwide in more than 700 cities.
For the Lambertville/New Hope edition, ACME invites anyone with a creative practice, profession, or passion to share their work in 20 images for 20 seconds each. It’s an informal and energetic night where all are invited to meet and support the artists and “makers” in the community.
Muchnicki’s appointment as executive director seems to be an excellent fit and is a culmination of her years in nonprofit work as well as a combination of her many passions and skills.
“I’ve worked for several different nonprofit organizations, starting with New Hope Arts when I first moved here in 2005,” Muchnicki says. “Robin Larsen [the late promoter of the New Hope arts community] put the nonprofit ‘bug’ in my ear, and I’ve been working exclusively with them since then.”
“The ACME draws on a combination of all my different experiences, things such as grant writing, running workshops, fundraising, bringing artists into the area, etc.,” she adds. “It’s the perfect organization (for me), because it combines so many aspects of my background.”
Muchnicki grew up in Yardley, Bucks County, and has lived in the area most of her life, coming and going at certain times for professional and educational reasons. Her father was an engineer for the federal government, and her mom was a homemaker but also the type of person who was always crafting something. “I always had my hand in the arts, including teaching,” she says.
Muchnicki studied art therapy at the College of New Jersey, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1982. She then spent some time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, concentrating on painting and video art.
In 2012, after raising four sons, she completed her masters in arts education at Boston University and started her own freelance company, combining teaching private and workshop-level art lessons with providing nonprofit management services.
This led to Muchnicki working with many local organizations such as New Hope Auto Show, Bristol Riverside Theater, and Tyler Park Center for the Arts in Bucks County.
After the ACME’s former executive director, Sara Scully, left to oversee the opening of the reincarnated Hopewell Theater, “several friends in the area recommended the job to me and encouraged me to apply,” Muchnicki says.
She continues to give private art lessons at her studio near the river in New Hope, something she says balances out all the fundraising and other administrative tasks in her life.
“My sons are all off doing their thing, so now the kids I teach keep me involved in the arts,” she says. “There’s so much talent in this area, and I’m happy to be involved in fostering this growth.”
“Film is a new genre to me, but I am an arts educator, so I think of it as just another medium, and you always have to be learning new media,” Muchnicki says. “I’m delving into something I’ve always loved.”
Now that all the physical improvements have been made to the ACME Screening Room and Muchnicki has found her stride as executive director, she looks forward to the venue’s next decade as a cornerstone of Lambertville/New Hope’s thoughtful and creative communities. She notes that while the ACME has a strong base locally in the two towns, the audience and membership includes people from about a one-hour radius.
“Since many of the filmmakers and directors who come to speak are based out of Philly or New York, we regularly draw patrons from those areas as well,” Muchnicki says. “We are part of the Google Grants program for nonprofits. This allows us to advertise from Philadelphia to New York City, and combined with the fact that Lambertville is also a tourist destination, brings us success in attracting people from farther outside of our area.”
She agrees that it is difficult to pry folks out of their homes and away from their electronic devices these days, and it typically takes more than just showing a film to get people to come to the theater.
“With the various ways films are available at home on our own televisions, there needs to be some motivation,” Muchnicki says.
“Where it is working for the ACME is twofold,” she explains. “First, we present films that are mostly not yet available outside the theater. These include newly released first-run indie films and documentaries by regional filmmakers.”
“Second, the events we work around our screenings make them more than just a movie. We attach a human element to your evening. Whether it is a discussion with the director or actor in a film, or another activity based around the theme, such as a group meditation or an art exhibit, we give people a chance to dig deeper into the meaning of the movie,” she adds.
The venue also regularly includes post-screening lobby receptions where the audience is invited to continue the conversation while enjoying light snacks.
In addition the ACME is known for its “Supper Clubs.”
“These are nights where we work out a group rate at one of our local restaurants or we enjoy the hospitality of a private donor’s home,” Muchnicki says. “It gives an opportunity to not only talk one-on-one with the artists and creators of the films we screen, but also to get to know our neighbors and make new friends. These are some of the reasons we have success in getting people to come out to the theater.”
“We come together to see a film, but we leave with something to think about,” she says. “With the current social climate it’s very important to share different ideas, reflect on things we might not otherwise think about, and then leave a little bit more aware. That’s what the ACME is — it’s not just about film, it’s about community.”
ACME Screening Room, 25 South Union Street, Lambertville. www.acmescreeningroom.org or 609-483-5457.
PechaKucha, ACME Screening Room. Friday, February 9, 7 p.m. For information and/or if you are interested in presenting your works, contact Liz Sheehan at email@example.com. www.pechakucha.org/cities/lambertville-new-hope