A movie being screened outside to an audience at Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University

A 2016 screening of Annie Hall under the stars on the Straight Terrace. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

Cornell Cinema Still Lights Up the Silver Screen

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After more than a half-century in the Straight, the Hill’s iconic movie venue remains a film fan's delight

By Lindsay Lennon

“There’s a real joy in sitting with people and experiencing a film,” says Molly Ryan, director of Cornell Cinema. The chance to watch a movie the way its creators intended it to be seen—with other humans, on an oversized screen in a darkened room, uninterrupted—has long been a cornerstone of the Cinema’s mission.

Now, more than 50 years after its founding, the Hill’s beloved film organization continues to do just that—in its iconic Willard Straight Theatre and beyond.

A man playing music along to a silent film on stage.
A March 2020 screening of The Golem with live music. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

“The Cinema is a distraction-free space to experience a work of art,” says Ryan, “and to be in community with others for experiences you can’t have from the comfort of your own couch.”

For generations of Cornellians, the Cinema’s nearly century-old theater on the Straight’s ground floor—originally a venue for live performance—has been a cherished spot for enjoying arthouse fare and Hollywood blockbusters alike.

Founded as a University film society in 1970, the Cinema was a go-to spot for students, faculty, staff, and locals to view classic and second-run films in an era before DVDs and streaming (and even before VHS and HBO).

The Cinema is a distraction-free space to experience a work of art.

Molly Ryan, director of Cornell Cinema

Current undergrads may find it hard to imagine: back then, once movies had completed their theatrical runs, they could generally only be seen if they were broadcast on TV—in a cropped pan-and-scan format, expurgated of adult content, and interrupted by commercials.

A perusal of Daily Sun ads of the era gleans Cornell Cinema showings of Casablanca, Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many more—not only in the Straight but in Uris and Statler auditoriums.

By the ’80s, the Cinema had grown into a sophisticated student-run operation, with screenings held daily during the academic year—and its semesterly schedule, stylishly printed on oversized pages, long graced the dorm room walls of many a Big Red cinephile.

Colorful murals on the walls of a 100-year-old movie theater
Some of the theater's eye-popping murals, which are original to the space. (Provided)

“We saw many movies that we would not have been able to see otherwise in those pre-streaming days,” recalls Tevi Troy ’89, who cites the cult classic Blue Velvet and the coming-of-age drama Stand by Me as standout films he saw on the Hill. “I’d keep the Cinema’s calendar on the desk where I studied, with the upcoming movies I wanted to see circled.”

Over the decades, the Cinema has hosted events and screenings headlined by celebrities from both in front of and behind the camera—including Monty Python star (and A.D. White Professor-at-Large) John Cleese, famed directors Ang Lee and Paul Verhoeven, and many more.

In 2017, after facing a funding crisis following many years of being supported through student activity fees, the Cinema became an academic program of the Department of Performing and Media Arts in the College of Arts & Sciences (with which it had been previously affiliated).

Its primary mission is to advance interdisciplinary teaching—both across the Hill and throughout the Finger Lakes region—through the art of film. The Cinema also has a long history of bringing affordable second-run Hollywood films to campus. (Set for November 2023: showings of recent summer blockbusters Barbie and Oppenheimer.)

“We offer movies people know they want to see, but we always have a ton of things they didn’t know they wanted to see,” says student staffer Lily Relleke ’26, who started in ticket and concession sales and now works as a house manager. “I think our biggest strength is we can do both.”

We offer movies people know they want to see, but we always have a ton of things they didn’t know they wanted to see.

Student staffer Lily Relleke ’26

Various fundraising efforts are ongoing, including plans to restore the theater’s original seating and century-old murals, as well as the resumption of the “Cinema Under the Stars” al fresco screenings on the WSH Terrace—a beloved tradition currently on hiatus while money is raised for new equipment, Ryan says.

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Like so much of campus life—and like theaters everywhere—the Cinema saw its operations upended by the pandemic. While COVID-era restrictions forced it to halt in-person screenings for 18 months (virtual programming was still offered), attendance has been steadily rebounding since its reopening in summer 2021.

“There were a couple of years’ worth of incoming students who didn’t know where the Cinema was, or that it was a thing,” notes Alex ArbitalJacoby ’24, a math major who works as a projectionist. “The turnout of people who show up to the average movie has increased tremendously in the last two years.”

An outdoor showing of a movie at Willard Straight Hall at Cornell University
An outdoor showing of the classic Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

Longtime volunteer usher David Brewer, a retired ILR instructor, cites the introduction of the All-Access Pass—which offers unlimited entry for an entire academic year for $25–$40—as a “game changer.”

"We’ve been trying to differentiate ourselves from standard movie theaters,” Brewer observes, “as well as from ways people can watch movies on small screens.”

To that end, the Cinema regularly hosts performance-based and interactive events—like 2023’s “From the Big Red to the Red Carpet,” featuring Emmy winners Scott Ferguson ’82, BA ’83 (“Succession”) and Michael Kantor ’83 (“American Masters”).

The WSH stage’s original purpose as a theatrical venue lends itself particularly well to screenings of silent films accompanied by live music, which have comprised some of the Cinema’s most widely attended events of late.

It has even taken the show on the road for seasonal Halloween screenings of iconic early horror films Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in Sage Chapel, hauntingly scored live by an experimental rock group.

Ryan notes that the Cinema’s varied offerings complement those of other local venues (which include a mall multiplex and a nonprofit, five-screen arthouse downtown).

College students take pictures of two Emmy Award statues with their phones.
Admiring alumni’s Emmy awards at "From the Big Red to the Red Carpet" in spring 2023. (Provided)

“There’s an ecosystem for cinema here in Ithaca,” she says. “That’s exciting because it creates opportunities to differentiate; you don’t have to be everything for everyone. We can think strategically about what films to bring to Cornell.”

And audiences still regularly flock to WSH to see recent Hollywood and arthouse hits (such as 2023’s packed showings of Everything Everywhere All At Once and Get Out) enjoy classic flicks, or savor a new film that they may not otherwise have discovered.

“It’s super fun to have a job where you get to bring people experiences and get them excited about movies,” says Relleke. “The Cinema, and theaters in general, offer a communal experience that’s accessible and easy. People can enjoy a movie together without necessarily knowing anyone there.”

A dark and crowded movie theater with a movie showing on the screen
A screening of the 2016 documentary Agents of Change. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

The majority of the Cinema’s fare is shown on a digital system via a single projector. But the venue also has two 35mm film projectors that require skill to switch from one reel to another at a precise moment—a role that entails intensive training.

“When you watch a 35mm film, you’re seeing it the way the director at the time would have actually seen it,” says ArbitalJacoby. “There’s a warmer quality—you can see the little grains and imperfections.”

Ryan, who holds a master’s degree in film studies from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, has helmed the Cinema since fall 2022 (succeeding longtime head Mary Fessenden, who led the organization for 35 years, including 27 as director).

We’ve been trying to differentiate ourselves from standard movie theaters, as well as from ways people can watch movies on small screens.

Volunteer usher David Brewer

Since her arrival, Ryan has introduced several features she hopes will become mainstays.

For instance, in spring ’23, she began the New Visions, New Voices series, a weekly opportunity to discover a director’s debut film.

And to mark the end of that semester, she launched what she aims to be an occasional series of "mystery" screenings: attendees (paying just $5) don’t know what movie they’ll be watching until it starts.

“Film has an incredible capacity to connect us, help us think about the human experience, and generate empathy for the experiences of others.” Ryan says. “That’s relevant, no matter what you’re studying.”

Top: A 2016 screening of Annie Hall under the stars on the Straight Terrace. (Joe Wilensky / Cornell University)

Published October 30, 2023


  1. Larry Epstein, Class of 1976

    One question…the article says that Cinema has been in the Straight for over 50 years. I was at Cornell from 1972-78 and Cornell Cinema was on the ground floor of Uris Hall (“Old Rusty”). Is it possible you have your dates wrong?

    • Shelley Winkler, Class of 1976

      I saw films at the WSH cinema during those years! At the time, I also saw them in Statler. Sounds like they were in a few locations.

      Watching Duck Soup from the balcony in WSH, and when war broke out on screen a bunch of students in the main section fired marshmallows at the balcony while those in the balcony fired red hots down below (or the other way?)! Figuring at least half the audience was stoned at the time it was a spectacular moment! I remember eating a marshmallow.

      Watching the movie, O Lucky Man, in Statler and then walking back to Dickson with 2 friends in like 10 degrees with just jeans and jackets on…totally freezing every step of the way! In the days before down coats, etc., jeans turned to ice!

  2. William Eisner, Class of 1962

    I was the WSH chief projectionist in the early 1960s, so it was wonderful to see the hall where I spent many nights watching great films through the small ports in the booth and changing reels every 20 minutes. In those days, we used giant Simplex 35mm projectors with carbon arc lights that had originally been built for silent films but had then been adapted for sound.

  3. AnnJ Gumbinner, Class of 1977

    That’s what I remember too, movies and other performances on the ground floor of Uris hall.

  4. John Lin, Class of 1993

    My first and favorite experience at Cornell Cinema happened during freshman orientation week or the first week of classes in the Aug/Sept 1993 where a group of my dormmates and I went to see ‘Say Anything’ in Uris Hall. When this scene happened:

    “I know we were ultra competitive this year, but I just want to say, if it wasn’t for Diane Court,woah, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into Cornell, because you made me study twice as hard.”

    Say Anything – Cornell

    the audience erupted in applause and cheering.

    One of my favorite memories while I was at Cornell!

    • Tim Lynch, Class of 1990

      I saw Say Anything at Cornell Cinema in ’89-’90 (my senior year), and had the same audience moment happen. So great! And the character saying it was played by the same actress who played the lead Heather in “Heathers,” which we’d seen at Cornell Cinema just a week or two earlier, so first there was a collective gasp of recognition.

  5. Robert Brooks

    I took film classes during 59-63 with Prof Walter Stanton who had a small screening room in Lincoln Hall. At that time, WSH theatre box office was managed by grad student in Drama. Seats were not reserved yet I often served as a paid usher.

  6. Tim Lynch, Class of 1990

    Other than the “Say Anything” moment I mentioned above, here’s another awesome memory which is sort of CC-adjacent:

    Sometime early in her freshman year, my eventual wife Lisa (Hazard, ’91) was on the phone with her father. He was wondering what she’d be doing over the weekend, and the conversation went something like this…

    “I’ll probably catch a movie — let’s see what Cornell Cinema has. Ooh, “Angel Heart” is playing!”
    “Hmm. I don’t know if I want you seeing that. But I guess I can’t stop you, so have fun.”
    “Thanks, Dad. No real interest in the movie; just wanted to make the point.”

    I married well. 🙂

  7. Larry Loo, Class of 1986

    The calendars were the stuff of legend; a little known fact was that, and this was before a thing called websites, you could dial in to the office to hear what was playing. That meant a Cornell Cinema staffer had to write and record the movie liners.

    The best job I ever had was working at Cornell Cinema. I started as an usher, the box office, then the best assignment of all, projectionist during the mid ’80’s. We had several locations to show films from Uris Hall (16mm & 35mm where we go to test out surround sound), Mayron Taylor Hall, Stadler (including a live orchestra performance alongside the silent “Phantom of the Opera” and 3D showing of “House of Wax”) to WSH.

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